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Some people have been asking how it is they talk about this HHS mandate rule to friends and family who are not Catholic. Some have even asked how they talk about it to Catholic friends who don’t follow the Church’s teaching on contraception. Well, here’s a way to do it that can resonate with everyone.

The rule from HHS allows for a religious exemption, the parameters for which are very narrow. There are essentially four aspects to this exemption.

  1. The organization must have tax exempt status.
  2. The organization’s purpose must be primarily to inculcate the faith – that means that their main work is teaching about the faith and/or worship.
  3. The organization’s work must be executed primarily by members of the faith – which means that at a Catholic hospital, all the essential employees must be professed Catholics.
  4. The organization’s work must be directed primarily to members of the faith – which means that a Catholic hospital would only be treating Catholics.

The first of these is obviously not a problem.

The second one can get tricky. How does a religious organization define “inculcating” the faith?

But it is the third and fourth ones above that are the real scandal. Why?  The Feds are telling Catholics that because we hire non-Catholics and – even worse – because we serve non-Catholics we are not REALLY engaging in work motivated by our faith. If this mandate stands, and at this point one wonders just how stupid the Obama Administration is here by keeping it alive, the Federal Government will be determining for religious institutions what counts as religious activity and what doesn’t. They will be deciding for the Church what and how much of what they do is an outgrowth of their faith.

Big Brother is WatchingThis is why, for even the atheist, liberal anti-cleric, this mandate ought to concern them. If there is truly to be a separation of Church and State, the State cannot start deciding for Churches what they get to define as religiously motivated activity.

This is truly and honestly unprecedented. Some might point to other times in U.S. history where the Federal Government decided for a religious body what they can or cannot do in the name of religion. One thinks, perhaps, of Mormon traditions with polygamy, or Amish education. But in all the previous cases the State did not say that these activities were not religious. They argued that despite being religiously motivated actions, they harmed the common good. Thus, the State stepped in and enforced its laws.

Under the HHS mandate the State is actually telling us Catholics that when we feed the poor, we’re not really being religious; that when we heal the sick, we’re not really being faithful Christians; that when we provide care for the woman in a crisis pregnancy, we’re not really being motivated by the Gospel.

This is chillingly ridiculous and must be fought against with all our strength.

What’s more, the work that Catholics do is demonstrably good for the State and the common good. The education we provide adds up to billions of dollars saved in public education coffers. The hospital care we provide is some of the best in the country and some of the most sought after. The charities we run in terms of food pantries, mental health facilities, crisis pregnancy centers, homeless shelters and the rest, all of these things are definitively good for our country.

Therefore, it is not that the Federal Government is saying that our religious activity harms the common good. They are saying that despite the quantifiable good which we do, it is not REALLY religious activity, and so cannot be exempt from their rule… oh, and too bad that it violates your conscience.

So if you find yourself in a conversation with a co-worker who wants to know why this is so wrong, tell them that for the first time in U.S. history the Federal Government is taking on for itself the task of defining what religion is, not just what can and cannot be done legally, but actually defining what constitutes religious activity.