Interview: SF Archbishop George H. Niederauer on Obama Administration Contraceptive Rule

Earlier this week, San Francisco Archbishop George H. Niederauer waded into the growing dispute between the Obama administration and U.S. Catholic leaders over a new federal rule on health insurance coverage. The rule requires institutions like hospitals and universities that are religiously affiliated to provide coverage for contraception, just as non-religious employers are required to do.

The archbishop wrote a letter (pdf) to be distributed at Mass this weekend, asking all parishioners to write the White House or congressional representatives to change the policy.

From the letter:

For the first time in federal law, the government has determined that religious institutions such as Catholic hospitals, Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services are not truly religious employers because they do not have as their primary purpose “the inculcation of religious values” and do not primarily limit their services to those of their own faith.

In other words, the religious activities of our Catholic hospitals, our social services to the poor, and our outreach to the hurting and the marginalized in our society are not truly religious activities protected by the first amendment because they enshrine the Catholic belief — shared by virtually every religious community in the United States — that religious communities are called to reach out to feed the poor, shelter the homeless, and heal the sick precisely as a religious activity.

The implications of this insidious new legal and policy principle, if allowed to stand, are chilling. Once it is accepted that religious institutions that serve the poor, the sick and the elderly do not enjoy the full protections of religious liberty, future administrations could compel religious hospitals and service organization to pay for insurance and other policies that mandate abortion or euthanasia. In addition, such a principle would likely create crises of conscience for religious institutions of virtually every faith, so that over time they would be forced out of the mainstream of the social fabric.

We cannot – we will not – accept this unjust redrafting of the principle of religious liberty which our Founders so rightly saw as an inalienable gift of God. People of faith cannot be made second class citizens. And faith based service to those in need in our society cannot be classified as non-religious by our national government. We are already joined by our brothers and sisters of many other faiths as well as others of good will in this important effort to regain our religious freedom. Indeed, many journalists across the political spectrum, both supporters and opponents of the present administration, have called for a reversal of this policy.

On Tuesday, KQED’s Stephanie Martin interviewed Niederauer about the dispute. Here’s an edited transcript:

What’s the main message you want to convey with your letter?

This is not about birth control, it’s about religious freedom. The federal government is telling Catholics through this regulation that our outreach to the poor and the sick through our Catholic hospitals and social services are not expressions of our faith, because we serve and hire non-Catholics as well as Catholics. If we served and hired only Catholics, which we don’t want to do, then it wouldn’t matter.

For us, it goes back to Jesus Christ, who has told us to help those in need and hasn’t specified what religion they belong to.

We believe that the definition of religious freedom is such that we have the freedom to be true to our religious beliefs as we offer these services to everyone.

What are you hoping parishioners will do once they’ve read your message?

I’m hoping they will communicate with the White House and their congressional representative, because this is a federal issue.

California has a similar law in place, doesn’t it?

Twenty-eight states including California do. These states have found ways to let the church follow its tenets and still provide what is satisfactory health coverage according to the law.

What bothers us quite a bit is that there were easy ways to get around this problem, but they decided to make the confrontation.

What would this mean for Catholics in California if the regulation stands?

We don’t think this is the last step in this. For many years now there have been people agitating and writing on the issue of Catholic hospitals, saying in so many words that if a Catholic hospital doesn’t provide abortion, then it ought to shut down or sell to a hospital that will. They don’t’ say “abortion,” they say “full range of reproductive services.”

We’re concerned that this is one of the first steps taken toward that goal. It’s all about whether you can run a hospital according to your own religious beliefs, or can the state dictate to you exactly what you need to do.

It’s not always going to be about insurance or birth control; it could in the future be about euthanasia or assisted suicide. Why don’t’ you offer it in your hospital? If you don’t then why are you open?

Are other area church leaders involved in this initiative?

Probably by the end of this month practically every bishop in California will be involved. If you have a Catholic hospital in your diocese, then you’re alarmed as to what this will lead to.

The mobilization of parishioners on this issue may be tough, however, according to a national poll by the Public Religion Research Institute. Some of the findings:

  • Roughly 6-in-10 Catholics (58%) believe that employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception.
  • Among Catholic voters, support for this requirement is slightly lower at 52%.

Stephanie Martin talked to Robert Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute about the poll. He added this:

Catholics support the fact that churches are exempt, but not when it comes to colleges and hospitals. They make a distinction. I think the survey shows this conflict is really sharper between the Obama administration and the US Conference of Bishops.

One demographic that no one will need to convince to make an issue of this: Republican politicians, who have taken up full-throated criticism of the administration over the rule.

More on the issue…

Author

Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks writes mostly on film for KQED Arts. He is also an online editor and writer for KQED's daily news blog, News Fix. Jon is a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S.

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