By Sister Mary Ann Walsh

Late night comics who mock the church may have set the tone of the government’s current salvos against religious freedom. Who would have thought that the disdain for religion by the cheap-laughs crowd would become part of the federal agenda?

At least it seems that way. NBC lauds Jay Leno, who once joked that a news report of a priest violating celibacy with a woman was received at the Vatican with, “A woman? Thank God.” David Letterman, who once said a report on the priest shortage proved “there is some good news in the world,” still stars at CBS. Both comics feel free to diss the church, and the government follows their lead as it works to dismantle longstanding guarantees of freedom for religion.

For example, new regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. health care reform) mandate coverage of contraception (including abortifacients) and sterilization in almost all private health insurance plans. HHS offers a religious exemption for some employers but only when most of the employees are of the same faith, when they serve primarily others of the same faith, and are proselytizing.

For Catholics, that means that feeding the poor counts as a religious ministry only when the hungry are co-religionists. One out of six people who need hospital care in the U.S. go to a Catholic facility – but HHS would qualify the hospital for a religious exemption only if it employed mostly Catholics, served mostly Catholics and, I suppose, taught the Ten Commandments in between sutures. When the government determines what is and is not a church ministry you have big-time interference with the exercise of religion.

Freedom for religion means that government cannot interfere with the internal governance of religious institutions.  Whatever you think about sterilizations, for example, it means the government should not force Catholic organizations to pay for them, and therefore, promote them, through their insurance programs.

Unfortunately, the problems don’t end with health care.  In the effort to redefine marriage, we see the government threatening religious discrimination in the name of—you guessed it—preventing discrimination.  The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton, declares that marriage is between one man and one woman. But the Department of Justice, which is charged with defending Acts of Congress like DOMA against constitutional challenge, declared in March that it would stop doing so.  In July, Justice went further and started filing briefs that attack DOMA’s constitutionality. Most disturbing in this flip-flop is its rationale:  DOMA’s definition of marriage must be abandoned and then attacked because it is motivated by bias and prejudice, comparable to racism.  That is, the Justice Department simply writes off as bigots those with longstanding support for traditional marriage.  And if the Justice Department gets its way in court, those considered bigots by the federal government will be marginalized with the full moral, economic, and coercive power of the state.

For example, an employer who provides unique employment benefits to the actually married risks being disqualified from government funding – and most other government cooperation – and likely  being sued for “discrimination.”  A government clerk who expresses a conscientious objection to cooperating with same-sex civil union ceremonies risks a pink slip.

In short, this is what happens when the view that marriage is between a man and a woman becomes a violation of the U.S. Constitution.  And this is what the Justice Department urges—apparently forgetting that imposing special disabilities on people and groups because of their religious beliefs offends the First Amendment at its core.

Comics draw laughs when they mock the church, stereotype nuns and scorn priests both for adhering to celibacy rules and occasionally flouting them. They may be playing for laughs, but it is something more when the government abandons its centuries-old truce with religion. Toying with freedom for religion bodes ill—not just for Catholics, but also for the Constitution and anyone who lives under it.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh
Director of Media Relations
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
3211 4th St., NE
Washington, DC 20017-1194