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Allies under assault

"Allies under assault" Continued...

Issue: "2012 Cities Issue," March 10, 2012

The mandate as it stands doesn't encompass the extent of religious life, leaders say. "These so-called accommodations were made without reference to the real world that the church operates in," said Bishop William Lori, the U.S. Catholic Church's point man on religious freedom. Insurers must provide contraceptives for free, a problem for groups that self-insure, for example. GuideStone Financial Resources is one of those self-funded, faith-based insurance programs, which serves the Southern Baptist Convention. While the churches are completely exempt from the mandate, the convention's affiliate organizations are subject to the mandate, and GuideStone said the mandate "threatens the very coverage of those dedicated persons who serve our churches and affiliated organizations." The White House has said that self-insured groups will not have to pay for contraceptives for their employees, but the administration hasn't laid out a policy for how that will work.

Major Christian healthcare sharing ministries have also found themselves caught between regulations and the "real world": Clients of Samaritan Ministries International, for one, are exempt from the individual mandate (and thus the contraceptive mandate) because the healthcare law carved out a special exemption for healthcare sharing ministries. But the group itself is subject to the employer mandate because it has more than 50 employees and doesn't meet the criteria for a church. So while its clients are exempt, the ministry's employees are not. James Lansberry, the group's vice president and the head of the Alliance of Health Care Sharing Ministries, said the group has submitted a request for regulatory clarification on the matter but plans to pay the federal penalties for not providing insurance to employees if they are required to provide contraceptive coverage.

In these battles religious leaders see a deeper issue that goes beyond the politics of 2012. "The big narrative is the privatization of religion," Lori said. The fact that the administration only applied a religious exemption to churches "exemplifies that privatization of religion," he said. "Religion pertains to the whole of life," Robert George added. "It's a common misunderstanding ... that you can divide your life into religious segments or secular segments. ... When government officials ... don't understand that, they can threaten religious freedom."

Saddleback's Warren agrees: "Most people don't really get what the issue is here," he said, regarding the mandate. "It's the government saying, 'You have to violate your own conscience.' More than that, it's defining what is and isn't the church." He said the government is telling the church, "'You can have your conviction if you're doing evangelism,'" but not for education or healthcare. "That's a dangerous, dangerous thing that I will fight."

At the local level, New York City churches are being pushed out of the public square. The city has banned more than 60 churches from meeting inside public schools where other organizations have access, and now dozens of churches across the city have nowhere to hold services.

On Feb. 17, federal Judge Loretta Preska issued a temporary restraining order that was intended to allow churches 10 more days to meet inside public schools. But the next day, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals tempered the order to apply only to The Bronx Household of Faith, the church that has been at the center of the legal fight. Efforts to overturn the ban legislatively continue. The next step is for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to introduce Bill A8800 to the Assembly floor for a vote. "This is really a no-brainer," said councilman Fernando Cabrera in a statement. "[H]ouses of worship benefit communities, bring revenue to the city, and deserve equal access to rent these empty spaces in public school buildings during non-school hours. We will continue the fight."

Those opposed to churches meeting in public schools claim that such arrangements violate the Constitution and confuse local youth into thinking that the state endorses the religious views expressed during a religious service. But Alliance Defense Fund Senior Counsel Jordan Lorence, who has worked on New York-based equal access cases for almost 20 years, says the conflict stems from an unconstitutional view of the separation of church and state. "The Supreme Court has rejected this view," Lorence said. "Accommodating private speech doesn't violate the establishment clause. ... New York City is the last holdout for an extreme view of the separation clause ... that says religion is something that needs to be contained and driven" from the public square.

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