In August, I urged President Trump in these pages to follow through on his promise to end what is commonly called the “HHS mandate.” For more than six years, that regulation has threatened to force people and groups to provide insurance coverage in violation of their deeply held religious and moral beliefs.
After living with that threat for so long, it is easy to forget what a shock that mandate was when it was first instituted. It represented a major departure from the consistent practice of the federal government to respect the conscience rights of everyone with religious or moral objections to controversial medical interventions.
Moreover, the mandate’s extremely narrow exception covered only houses of worship, leaving our ministries of service with a second-class religious “accommodation,” and reflecting an unacceptable reduction of the freedom of religion to the freedom of worship.
Today, I am grateful to see that the newest Health and Human Services regulations abandon these extreme measures and bring the federal government back into the religious freedom mainstream. Once again, the federal government — with its formidable coercive power and effectively inexhaustible resources — is taking due care to avoid forcing its citizens to act against their religious beliefs and moral convictions.
Once again, conscience protection applies to everyone with an bona fide religious or moral objection; not only are houses of worship and ministries of service restored to equal footing before the law, but individual conscience is protected as well.
This is a major step forward, and we are grateful for it. Unfortunately, this long struggle is still not over.
Dozens of lawsuits, challenging the mandate on behalf of hundreds of religious people and groups, remain unresolved in the federal courts. But the government has now explained in detail in the new regulations how the HHS mandate imposes a “substantial burden” that does not serve a “compelling interest.” In short, the government has admitted that the mandate violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA). In light of this, one can fairly hope that the government’s lawyers will settle the cases favorably and promptly.
And lawsuits have already been filed to challenge the favorable action taken today. I am not a lawyer, and I do not know what legal theories would be involved. But any lawsuit claiming that the government is somehow required to force religious people and groups to act contrary to their religious beliefs seems absurd on its face. Even non-lawyers know that the U.S. Constitution does not mandate religious freedom violations; it forbids them.
So, my brother bishops and I remain hopeful, and we will continue to pray fervently, that respect for religious liberty — rooted in the dignity of every person and protected by our Constitution and laws — will prevail in the end.
Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston, is president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.