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LCMS President testifies on infringement of religious rights

February 17, 2012 No Comment

President Harrison (LCMS) testifying at a congressional hearing on whether the Health and Human Services mandate infringes on religious freedom.

by Mathew Block

President Matthew Harrison of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) appeared at a congressional hearing February 16, arguing that government is infringing upon religious liberty with its new Health and Human Services mandate. In addition to President Harrison, the panel also included Roman Catholic, Baptist, and Jewish leaders.

In January 2012, the White House announced the implementation of new rules requiring all employers to include coverage for contraception and sterilization in its insurance policies. Exceptions were made for churches, synagogues, and other places of worship, but other religious institutions—including colleges, charitable organizations, and hospitals—were not exempted. They were given a one-year grace period to comply with the new legislation, after which heavy fines would be levelled for failure to comply.

Numerous religious groups—most prominently the Roman Catholic Church—cried foul, arguing that the new laws infringed upon their constitutional right to freedom of religion. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that contraception is morally wrong. Forcing their hospitals and charitable organizations to pay for it, the church argued, was a gross violation of their rights, and they would not comply. All 180 bishops of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States of America have opposed the measure.

In addition to providing coverage for contraception, the new rules also include funding for “the morning after pill” and Ulipristal or “Ella”. These drugs—often called abortifacients—can induce abortions by preventing a young fetus from attaching to the uterus wall.

President Harrison expressed his concern in an open letter February 3. He wrote that the church “objects to the use of drugs and procedures that are used to take the lives of unborn children, who are persons in the sight of God from the time of conception.” While he notes that the LCMS’ own health plan has been grandfathered in, thus exempting it from abiding by the new rules, he expressed “grave concern” for the rights of other religious groups. “The action by HHS,” he writes, “will have the effect of forcing many religious organizations to choose between following the letter of the law and operating within the framework of their religious tenets.

On February 10, President Barack Obama announced what he called an “accommodation” for religious employers: they would not have to directly pay for birth control, he said, but their insurance companies would. A number of groups, including the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, denied that any real accommodation had been made. As the religious organizations have to pay insurers for coverage, and as insurers are obligated to cover birth control, then religious organizations would still be required to hire insurers providing coverage condemned by the organization’s religious beliefs.

In President Harrison’s response to the accommodation, he wrote that “the government has overstepped its bounds.” “This controversy is not merely about ‘birth control’ and the Catholic Church’s views about it,” he wrote. “It’s about mandating that we provide medications which kill life in the womb. And moreover, and perhaps even more ominous, it is about an overzealous government forcing coercive provisions that violate the conscience and rights of its citizens.”

Religious people determine what violates their consciences, not the federal government.

In light of the widespread concern, a congressional hearing was called to consider whether the rights of religious groups were being infringed by the Health and Human Services mandate. In his testimony at the hearing, President Harrison explained his concerns as follows:

“While we are opposed in principle, not to all forms of birth control, but only abortion-causing drugs, we stand with our friends in the Catholic Church and all others, Christians and non-Christians, under the free exercise and conscience provisions of the U.S. Constitution. Religious people determine what violates their consciences, not the federal government.”

Later in the discussion, President Harrison asserted: “I would rather go to jail than violate my conscience”—a sentiment shared by other members of the panel. Other leaders on the first panel of witnesses included Bishop William Lori of the Roman Catholic Church, Dr. Ben Mitchell of Union University, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik of Yeshiva University, and Dr. Craig Mitchell of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, all of whom held that the administration’s new health mandate infringed on religious rights.

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