In 1984 when he was fresh out of school, Barack Obama was hired through a group of Chicago churches to be a community activist for the poor. It is difficult to know if he ever saw his charity work as religious in nature. Yet as president, he now faces a legal challenge over that very type of question.
On Monday, more than a dozen lawsuits were filed by Catholic institutions to overturn a decision by Mr. Obama that exempts only certain types of religious groups from a health-care mandate but also ends up narrowly defining what is a religious organization and religious activity.
His administration’s decision – as part of the new health-care law – is aimed at imposing a mandate on religiously affiliated institutions, such as Christian charities, schools, and hospitals, to carry health insurance that covers the cost of birth control for any worker in those institutions.
The lawsuits are supported by a large number of Christian groups as well as a few Jewish leaders. Yet the suits do more than simply object to the government trying to define religion, a dubious affront to religious liberty that the courts have long warned against. These groups also decry the Obama administration’s notion that religion is primarily a matter of belief and does not necessarily include activity to help and heal others based on one’s spiritual convictions.
The issue of whether a woman should have access to birth control is not really at stake in these lawsuits. There are other ways for government to provide such access, such as expanding Medicaid. And church-run organizations, many of which self-insure, need not be required to pay insurance premiums that end up subsidizing birth control in violation of their beliefs.
Rather, the more critical issue is Obama’s reasoning in his decision on which types of faith-based groups can be excluded from the birth-control mandate.
The US Department of Health and Human Services has decided to exempt only those religious groups whose primary purpose is the “inculcation” of religious values and who primarily serve their own members.
The vast majority of faith-based groups do far more than simply teach their tenets or minister to the faithful. For Christians especially, the call to serve and heal others is not separate from their understanding of God’s infinite love for humanity and the command to love one another. Even the Chicago organization that a young Obama once directed, the Developing Communities Project, defines its purpose as being “by faith and works.”
Yet the administration now refers only to “freedom of worship,” or a private faith, rather than “freedom of religion,” which includes engaging the public. By that distinction, the works of Florence Nightingale, Mother Teresa, the Salvation Army, or any modern-day good Samaritan would not be religious.
For government to dismiss the good works of the faithful as not religious would send a message that only government and secular groups can heal the sick, feed the hungry, or bind the broken hearted. Yet for centuries, churches and other religious groups have gladly provided such services, often in the absence of government, and often by employing those outside the faith. Many faith groups even assist women – of any faith – who seek birth control.
Obama cannot be faulted in his desire to provide universal health care. But he can achieve that goal without trying to define religion. If health care were that important, he would have forbidden any exemptions to the mandate. But he did exempt – by dividing faith from works.
As the Supreme Court has advised, government must “refrain from trolling through a person’s or institution’s religious beliefs.”
Obama can end these lawsuits by remembering his own experience of working for an activist faith group. Such groups serve a valuable role for both God and society, as he recognized in his 2009 inaugural speech: “For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies.”