The column in question was animated by the latest assault on the First Amendment and freedom of conscience by the Obama administration. It comes on the heels of a decision by Democrats in the state of Illinois to give Catholic adoption agencies the choice of going out of business or placing children with gay parents.
Soon thereafter President Obama's Secretary of HHS, Kathleen Sebelius, cut funding to an organization that works with girls rescued from the sex trade because the organization would not recommend abortion services.
Now Secretary Sebelius has refused to grant exemptions to religious organizations (such as hospitals and universities) which hire people of other faiths from provisions in Obamacare which require them to violate their conscience and provide free contraception and abortifacient coverage in their health care plans. Mr. Obama could have issued a waiver for religious organizations but chose not to, earning him a storm of condign criticism.
Rod Dreher, for instance, quotes a friend, a liberal lawyer and Obama supporter, who is astonished at this move:
But Obama, to placate the abortion lobby, has decided to not merely ignore Catholic concerns as he already did, but now to affirmatively attack them. It is unimaginable that he could be this politically stupid. He now provides evidence that makes me (largely a liberal Democrat) wonder if this administration and elements in the Democratic Party are not in fact pursuing a wider agenda to reduce religious voice and presence in the public square. Until now, I had left that kind of theorizing to the conservative talk shows — but what else explains this move?Dreher's friend has a lot more venting to do at the link.
Here are some excerpts from Gerson's column:
In politics, the timing is often the message. On Jan. 20 -- three days before the annual March for Life -- the Obama administration announced its final decision that Catholic universities, hospitals and charities will be compelled to pay for health insurance that covers sterilization, contraceptives and abortifacients.Whatever Mr. Obama's motivations, if he has his way Catholic institutions will be a fading presence on our cultural landscape, and all of us, Catholic and non-Catholic, will be the poorer for it.
Catholic leaders are still trying to process the implications of this ambush. The president had every opportunity to back down from confrontation. In the recent Hosanna-Tabor ruling, a unanimous Supreme Court reaffirmed a broad religious autonomy right rooted in the Constitution. President Barack Obama could have taken the decision as justification for retreat.
And it would have been a minor retreat. The administration was on the verge of mandating nearly universal contraceptive coverage through Obamacare without public notice. There would have been no controversy at all if Obama had simply exempted religious institutions and ministries. But the administration insisted that the University of Notre Dame and St. Mary's Hospital be forced to pay for the privilege of violating their convictions.
Obama chose to substantially burden a religious belief, by the most intrusive means, for a less-than-compelling state purpose -- a marginal increase in access to contraceptives that are easily available elsewhere. The religious exemption granted by Obamacare is narrower than anywhere else in federal law -- essentially covering the delivery of homilies and the distribution of sacraments. Serving the poor and healing the sick are regarded as secular pursuits -- a determination that would have surprised Christianity's founder.
Both radicalism and maliciousness are at work in Obama's decision -- an edict delivered with a sneer. It is the most transparently anti-Catholic maneuver by the federal government since the Blaine Amendment was proposed in 1875 -- a measure designed to diminish public tolerance of Romanism, then regarded as foreign, authoritarian and illiberal. Modern liberalism has progressed to the point of adopting the attitudes and methods of 19th-century Republican nativists.
Obama is claiming the executive authority to determine which missions of believers are religious and which are not -- and then to aggressively regulate institutions the government declares to be secular. It is a view of religious liberty so narrow and privatized that it barely covers the space between a believer's ears.
Obama's decision also reflects a certain view of liberalism. Classical liberalism was concerned with the freedom to hold and practice beliefs at odds with a public consensus. Modern liberalism uses the power of the state to impose liberal values on institutions it regards as backward. It is the difference between pluralism and anti-clericalism.
The administration's ultimate motivation is uncertain. Has it adopted a radical secularism out of conviction, or is it cynically appealing to radical secularists? In either case, the war on religion is now formally declared.