Religious Freedom

Protect Our Religious Freedom

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution reads as follows:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

The first 16 words safeguard freedom of religion in America. But recent actions of the federal government are violating that protection.

The HHS Mandate

As part of the new federal health care reform law passed in Spring 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has ruled that almost all employers must offer health insurance coverage that pays for “preventive” services such as sterilization, contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs.

This final rule issued in January 2012 includes a religious exemption so narrow that most religiously affiliated organizations will not qualify. The four-pronged exemption states that an organization qualifies if it 1. has the inculcation or teaching of religious values as its purpose; 2. primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets; 3. primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets; and 4. is a nonprofit organization” under specific sections of the Internal Revenue Code.

Despite an onslaught of pleas to broaden the exemption so that Catholic and other faith-based organizations will not be forced to violate their conscience in offering such health coverage, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and President Barack Obama have refused to do so. Instead, they have given religiously affiliated organizations – such as Catholic hospitals, health care centers, social service providers, schools, colleges and universities – until Aug. 1, 2013 to comply with the rule.

"Accommodation" Falls Short of Preserving Religious Freedom

Obama in February 2012 announced an “accommodation” that would place the responsibility of contacting employees about contraceptive coverage – and payment for those services – on the insurance company. But many Catholic hospitals and universities are self-insured, meaning they essentially act as the insurer.

This "accommodation" also has yet to be put in writing. The original mandate was finalized in February "without change," meaning it's the current law of the land.

The lack of an adequate conscience exemption is a slap in the face to common fairness and decency. It strikes at the mission of Catholic organizations to serve the poor and care for the sick. But forcing Catholics and members of other faiths to violate their conscience is a breathtaking attack on the religious freedom protections guaranteed by the First Amendment.

HHS mandate changes appear to ease religious freedom assault; U.S. bishops studying modifications

The federal government on Feb. 1, 2013, announced changes to the Health and Human Services mandate that appear to recognize religious freedom concerns.

However, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a statement in a press release, noting the nearly 80 pages of proposed regulations needed further study.

“Today, the Administration issued proposed regulations regarding the HHS mandate," said Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who serves as president of the USCCB. "We welcome the opportunity to study the proposed regulations closely. We look forward to issuing a more detailed statement later.”

The Catholic Conference of Illinois had no additional comment at the time of the announcement.

The original HHS mandate calls for all employers to offer insurance coverage of abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilizations. This final rule issued in January 2012 includes a religious exemption so narrow that most religiously affiliated organizations would not qualify. The four-pronged exemption states that an organization qualifies if it 1. has the inculcation or teaching of religious values as its purpose; 2. primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets; 3. primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets; and 4. is a nonprofit organization” under specific sections of the Internal Revenue Code.

The changes announced today in a press release and fact sheet eliminate the first three criteria, thereby apparently exempting Catholic dioceses, hospitals, schools, universities, colleges, Charities, and social service programs.

The modifications also state that employees of the exempt religious organizations would be offered contraceptive coverage through a third party at no cost to the employee or the organizations. An eligible organization — whether it is group insured or self-insured (serves as the insurer) — "would have no role in contracting, arranging, paying, or referring for this separate contraceptive coverage."

Most Catholic institutions are self-insured.

For-profit entities that refuse to offer contraceptive coverage because of their religious beliefs are not included in these changes. Therefore, businesses such as Hobby Lobby — who are suing the government over the HHS mandate over First Amendment protections — will get no relief under these proposed changes.

The proposed regulations were filed this morning with the Office of the Federal Register and can be viewed here. Public comments on the proposal will be accepted by the federal government through April 8, 2013.

U.S. bishops say HHS mandate changes fall short, welcome working with feds on religious freedom concerns

U.S. bishops on Feb. 7, 2013 responded to changes proposed a week earlier to the federal Health and Human Services mandate, saying the "accommodation" falls short of solving religious freedom concerns but stressed they look forward to working with the federal government on a solution.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a press release containing a statement by President Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York that outlined three areas of concern to the regulations proposed on Feb. 1. 

Dolan said that while the proposal appears to broaden the religious exemption from the original mandate requiring insurance coverage of abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilizations, it does not fully recognize that Catholic hospitals, schools, universities, colleges, Charities and social service organizations are an integral element of the Catholic Church.

"It appears to offer second-class status to our first-class institutions in Catholic health care, Catholic education, and Catholic charities. HHS offers what it calls an 'accommodation,' rather than accepting the fact that these ministries are integral to our Church and worthy of the same exemption as our Catholic churches," Dolan said. "And finally, it seems to take away something that we had previously—the ability of an exempt employer (such as a diocese) to extend its coverage to the employees of a ministry outside the exemption."

Dolan also stated the proposal's requirement that religious organizations offer separate insurance coverage of the morally objectionable services — albeit through a third-party administrator — needed further clarification.

"…It is still unclear how directly these separate policies would be funded by objecting ministries, and what precise role those ministries would have in arranging for these separate policies," Dolan said.

Dolan also noted the regulations do nothing to protect the conscience rights of for-profit businesses, turning them into a "third-class."

"In obedience to our Judeo-Christian heritage, we have consistently taught our people to live their lives during the week to reflect the same beliefs that they proclaim on the Sabbath," Dolan said. "We cannot now abandon them to be forced to violate their morally well-informed consciences."

However, Dolan stressed the U.S. bishops welcome the opportunity to work with the federal administration by submitting comments on the proposal during the public comment period through April 8, 2013.

"Throughout the past year, we have been assured by the Administration that we will not have to refer, pay for, or negotiate for the mandated coverage," Dolan said. "We remain eager for the Administration to fulfill that pledge and to find acceptable solutions—we will affirm any genuine progress that is made, and we will redouble our efforts to overcome obstacles or setbacks."  

HHS "Spin" Creeps Into The Election

A blatant inaccuracy about the supposed resolution of the HHS mandate was perpetuated during the Oct. 11, 2012, debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Republican Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan.

The USCCB on Oct. 12 issued the following statement in its entirety, and it can also be found here.

Last night, the following statement was made during the Vice Presidential debate regarding the decision of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to force virtually all employers to include sterilization and contraception, including drugs that may cause abortion, in the health insurance coverage they provide their employees:

"With regard to the assault on the Catholic Church, let me make it absolutely clear. No religious institution—Catholic or otherwise, including Catholic social services, Georgetown hospital, Mercy hospital, any hospital—none has to either refer contraception, none has to pay for contraception, none has to be a vehicle to get contraception in any insurance policy they provide. That is a fact. That is a fact."

This is not a fact. The HHS mandate contains a narrow, four-part exemption for certain "religious employers." That exemption was made final in February and does not extend to "Catholic social services, Georgetown hospital, Mercy hospital, any hospital," or any other religious charity that offers its services to all, regardless of the faith of those served.

HHS has proposed an additional "accommodation" for religious organizations like these, which HHS itself describes as "non-exempt." That proposal does not even potentially relieve these organizations from the obligation "to pay for contraception" and "to be a vehicle to get contraception." They will have to serve as a vehicle, because they will still be forced to provide their employees with health coverage, and that coverage will still have to include sterilization, contraception, and abortifacients. They will have to pay for these things, because the premiums that the organizations (and their employees) are required to pay will still be applied, along with other funds, to cover the cost of these drugs and surgeries.

USCCB continues to urge HHS, in the strongest possible terms, actually to eliminate the various infringements on religious freedom imposed by the mandate.

For more details, please see USCCB's regulatory comments filed on May 15 regarding the proposed "accommodation":

End of USCCB Statement

The individual who made the erroneous statement was Vice President Joe Biden.

CCI, U.S. Bishops Fight Back

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has vowed to fight this mandate that assaults the founding principles of our country. USCCB President Cardinal Dolan of New York issued a video on the mandate. Like their colleagues across the nation, Illinois’ six bishops issued letters to parishioners about the unfair rule to be read at Mass.

Dozens of Catholic dioceses and organizations have filed suit against the federal government, questioning the blatant unconstitutionality of the HHS mandate. Our U.S. bishops set a aside a "Fortnight for Freedom" this summer (June 21-July 4) to highlight the importance of religious liberty.

Our Illinois bishops and the Catholic Conference of Illinois have been vigilant on this issue from the start. CCI wrote members of Illinois’ congressional delegation when the rule was under consideration, urging them to support the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act (HR 1179 and S 1467), which allows for a conscience clause in the implementation of the federal health care reform law. Our bishops wrote Sebelius, urging her to broaden the religious exemption.

CCI has also alerted the media to this federal overstep of authority by sending a letter to the editor to media outlets throughout the state.

We also produced a 30-second radio spot that played on stations across the state June 21 – July 4.

U.S. Bishops Step Up Game

The USCCB in late October 2012 unveiled a new website targeting the current threats to religious freedom, called

The website offers a brochure that details how our Catholic faith is being rewritten. The mandate handed down by the federal Department of Health and Human Services Department is the most egregious offender. It requires all employers — including religiously affiliated employers — to offer insurance coverage of abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilizations.

More importantly, however, the mandate attempts to define what is "religious," requiring an organization to primarily evangelize about its faith, employ people of its faith, and serve people of its faith in order to qualify for a religious exemption. This is a severe violation of the religious protections guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The website also features a radio ad in English and Spanish, and a full page newspaper ad that reminds everyone that religious freedom isn't red or blue — it's American.

The radio and print ads are being run in select markets across the United States.

What You Can Do: Sign Up For I-CAN!

Sign up for the Illinois Catholic Advocacy Network (I-CAN).

Our bishops have authorized the creation of I-CAN as a way for lay Catholics to get educated and informed on issues that affect the Church and her mission. Parishioners who sign up for I-CAN will receive occasional e-mails from CCI on state and federal issues important to the Church.

  • You can sign up for I-CAN here.
  • Use your phone to stay updated on religious freedom. Text the word Freedom to 377377 or the word Libertad to 377377 to receive religious liberty updates from the USCCB.
  • Educate yourself on this important issue by reading the materials provided by the USCCB, as well as this statement on religious freedom. It cites recent governmental curbs such as the HHS mandate and the loss of state foster care and adoption contracts from Illinois Catholic Charities programs. "As Catholic bishops and American citizens, we address an urgent summons to our fellow Catholics and fellow Americans to be on guard," the bishops write, "for religious liberty is under attack, both at home and abroad."
  • Look up and contact your U.S. representative and U.S. senator, and tell them to urge President Barack Obama and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to overturn this unjust mandate.
  • Pray that these efforts overturn the HHS mandate, and preserve religious freedom in this country