from The Dominion, newsletter of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island:
The Right Reverend Lawrence C. Provenzano, DD, Bishop, The Episcopal Diocese of Long Island
“Violation of Conscience” or Seeking the Aid of Government in the Enforcement of Religious Teaching?
The early February controversy involving the President’s directive that access to birth control services and prescriptions must be included in the insurance provided workers regardless of the employer’s religious affiliation missed the most significant point. In that national debate, some in effect were asking the government to enforce religious teaching.
The fruitful passing on of religious beliefs is the job of the churches themselves, to speak
the obvious. To ask the law of the land to enforce particular beliefs would perhaps not
be undertaken at all if those doing so saw the issue framed in those terms. Yet there
are some who sought to eliminate the portion of the judgment that requires employers
– even religious institutions – to provide preventative prescription health coverage
in its health plans for employees – all of its employees. These voices intimate that if this
coverage, including various modes of birth control, is provided, the faithful will make
the wrong or unfaithful choice. They therefore are seeking to avoid that possibility by
eliminating the choice. To some, that might actually appear to be moving dangerously
close to the ‘establishment of religion’ rather than to a violation of conscience.
What is missing in this debate as presented is the blessed truth that the people of God, informed by their faith and its teachings, can make choices for themselves.
Eliminate the choice and there is no practice of faith, no informed decisionmaking,
and no faithful response to God’s grace. There remains only imposed, legislated morality, and beneath its weight a diminished humanity.
Why not include in provided insurance the full range of services that might be needed by people in our society? Why not then permit individual people of faith to make choices for themselves? Why not trust them to make mature, adult, morally
sound decisions? The cost involved in providing for the inclusion of these services
does not affect the overall cost of the insurance for the employer or employee. That is
not an issue. In religiously run institutions, religious leaders can always decide not to
offer certain programs or procedures, but their employees should always have the
option to seek such services outside those institutions and to have their earned employee
insurance help cover the cost.
Frankly, this is not really an issue of religious rights but rather one involving civil
rights. It has become an issue of morality and cuts at the heart of our nation. When
examined under the light of day, what legitimate and persuasive religious objection
can be made against safe, effective birth control? Clearly the advances in birth control
address the need for spontaneity and freedom of expression between a husband and wife. There can be no real objection to the services in question. None of us as churches can seek to have the government dictate our specific teaching as a matter of law or policy.
The controversy is not about an attack on religion. If that were true, I would be among the first to object to the originally announced policy. But this is not the issue bishops of the church should be working to address. Instead, why not energetically address moral and religious teaching across the spectrum of society and culture? Why not seek continuously to convince rather than coerce? Why not allow for the working of freely given divine grace in divinely freed human hearts, including those who are deciding about the use of birth control
in their lives? Issues such as the economic disparity in our nation, dishonesty in everyday
life, questions on the use of military force around the world: these and many others need strong voices ringing out continually with the voice of Christ’s Gospel.
As Jesus’ words in the gospels make clear, concern for the poor, the hungry and the
people all around us who live the cross of Christ each day is paramount.