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Was Jesus religious enough for HHS?

By Terry Mattingly Modified: May 24, 2013 at 12:45 pm •  Published: May 24, 2013
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When describing how his disciples should serve the needy, Jesus told a parable about a Good Samaritan who rescued a traveler who had been robbed and left for dead.

This businessman didn't care that his act of kindness took place in public and that the injured man didn't share his faith.

This raises an haunting question for those involved in the church-state struggles surrounding the Health and Human Services mandate requiring most religious institutions to offer their employees, and often students, health insurance plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved contraceptives, including "morning-after pills."

As Sister Mary Ann Walsh of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops noted in an online memo: "HHS has such a narrow standard as to who operates a religious ministry, Jesus himself couldn't pass muster."

After all, the Good Samaritan wasn't ordained and didn't work for a church or a nonprofit ministry, noted Stanley Carlson-Thies, president of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance. He spoke during a recent religion-and-politics symposium at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., which was streamed online.

Also, this businessman provided food and health care and the "very point of the story" is that he "cared for the injured man even though ... the man was of a different religion," stressed Carlson-Thies. Today, it would appear that any ministry that follows Jesus "by giving a cup of cold water to anyone who needs it, including those of other or no religion ... has put itself outside the category of a religious employer."

After all, the HHS mandate only recognizes the conscience rights of employers if they "fit a particular tax code definition that applies only to churches and their closely controlled affiliates," he said. These nonprofit employers must have the "inculcation of religious values" as their goal, primarily employ persons who share their "religious tenets" and primarily serve persons who share those same tenets.

The mandate has created a legal storm. Critics are asking whether the White House is promoting a two-tier approach to the First Amendment -- with "freedom of worship" favored over a broader right to the "free exercise" of religious liberty. Currently, an unprecedented number of lawsuits against the federal government -- 54 cases with more than 160 plaintiffs -- are creeping through the courts.

Meanwhile, noted Carlson-Thies, some branches of the government seem confused about what forms of religious work they want to encourage in public life.

For example, if leaders of religious organizations want to fit into the exempt category under the HHS mandate, they must be willing to violate the federal rules governing the faith-based initiative that seeks to promote cooperation between religious groups and the state. After all, he said, the faith-based initiative "requires groups that receive federal dollars to serve everyone, without regard to faith."

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