Bishop David A. Zubik, Zubik v. Burwell Let’s hope the Supreme Court stands up for religious liberty, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

This Wednesday, when I ordinarily would be deep in preparation for the most sacred days of Holy Week, I instead will be at the U.S. Supreme Court. Much to my surprise, I am now the lead plaintiff in Zubik v. Burwell, an important case that many religious organizations have brought against the government.

What I share with all our co-plaintiffs, non-Catholic and Catholic alike, is a strong objection to the government pressuring religious institutions into doing something that violates one of our most basic rights as Americans — religious freedom.

The real issue at hand is that religious freedom remains guaranteed. As a matter of fact, the case before the Supreme Court is focused on the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a federal law that “ensures that interests in religious freedom are protected.”

In addition to our co-plaintiffs, there are 43 amicus briefs from other religious organizations that have been submitted in support of our case, including Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Conference of Seventh Day Adventists, the American Islamic Conference, the National Association of Evangelicals and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs, among others.

While each of the co-plaintiffs and those filing amicus briefs have their own concerns relative to their faith tradition, our common concern is the preservation of our religious freedom.

My obligation as a bishop is to lead Catholic institutions according to Catholic doctrine.

The specific concern of the Catholic Church is the mandate in the Affordable Care Act that the church facilitate access to contraceptives, sterilization and abortifacients in violation of our core Catholic faith — thereby setting the stage to put limitations on our religious freedom.

The mandate from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services exempts houses of worship from having to provide birth control and abortifacient coverage in employee health-insurance policies. But religiously affiliated service institutions, which have always been protected as essential to the practice of our faith, such as Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, are not exempt.

In its brief, the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs expresses deep concern about the wedge that the Department of Health and Human Services is driving between houses of worship and their affiliated schools, hospitals and charitable institutions. In Orthodox Judaism, the brief argues, a house of religious study is more sacred than a synagogue, yet the synagogue is exempt while the house of study is not.

“It is not a permissible function of a secular court to determine the relative importance that a faith community may assign to its own institutions,” the brief said. When it tries to do so “it is guilty of impermissible entanglement in religious affairs.” We agree.

Another brief from Orthodox rabbis explains the danger of the government deciding which doctrines are so unimportant that a believer doesn’t have to follow them. In their tradition, they wrote, acts as seemingly trivial as flipping a light switch can desecrate the Sabbath. Who is to say that a government interest in energy conservation might not lead a federal agency to order Jews to break the Sabbath? Such concerns are at the heart of religious liberty in the United States and are at the heart of our case.

But there also is a lot at stake for the rights of every American. Religious freedom is not only about the right of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and other believers to follow the traditions of their faith. Religious freedom and freedom of conscience is about the rights of agnostics and atheists, too! We are all in this together.

This right to believe and act upon our religious beliefs has made the United States a great nation. The American right to freedom of religion anticipated the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights by 161 years. That declaration states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Zubik v. Burwell is a case primarily about religious freedom, about the right of any religious body to follow its own practices. It is about the most basic freedom of everyone in our society to think, believe, speak, write and act according to the most deeply held convictions of their conscience.

By not complying with this mandate, Catholic Charities would face ruinous fines which would greatly harm disadvantaged people. Catholic agencies are estimated to provide roughly one- quarter of all nongovernmental social services, and they serve everyone in need. In 2015, Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh alone provided $9.5 million in services, ranging from free medical and dental care to support for homeless women and men, among them veterans, through 416,733 acts of service to more than 21,000 people.

mitment to religious freedom gives us that righWe ask only that we not be forced to participate in a government regulatory plan in a way that violates our core religious beliefs — especially when less oppressive options are available for the government to pursue its goals. This country’s long comt.

David A. Zubik is bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.


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