by Julia Polese (@juliagrace)
Last night, Capitol Hill Baptist Church hosted a Henry Forum (named for Carl F.H. Henry, the first editor-in-chief of Christianity Today) talk entitled “The HHS Mandate and Challenges to Religious Liberty.” Kyle Duncan, General Counsel of the Becket Fund, presented his case that the HHS contraceptives mandate presents “grave, unique, and unprecedented” challenges to American religious freedoms.
CHBC Senior Pastor Mark Dever introduced the evening with an overview of religious freedom in America. He contrasted the language of early New England constitutions on the right of conscience and the Founders’ respect for religious freedoms with the current shift in language coming from the Obama administration trumpeting freedom of “worship” as the new interpretation of the First Amendment. Dever asserted that the HHS mandate requires faithful people to reevaluate whether their first allegiance is to God or State.
Kyle Duncan affirmed Dever’s remarks, saying that the United States government has previously been very sensitive to religious “scruples,” citing the care given to various Anabaptist sects’ commitment to pacifism and the option given to “swear or affirm” in judicial matters to protect those wary of taking oaths because of their convictions about the meaning of the New Testament. The HHS mandate, however, represents a departure from this sensitivity. The Department of Health and Human Services has defined the Affordable Care Act’s coverage of “preventive care and services for women” as including contraceptives, abortifacient drugs, and sterilization and with an attitude far from respectful to tender consciences. Duncan called the “accommodations” put forward by the administration for non-profit religious organizations like universities “dubious” and pointed out that they still were not an exemption. He further disparaged the administration’s treatment of for-profit businesses, saying that the HHS was forcing business owners like the Green family at Hobby Lobby to “set up a dedicated fund earmarked for something sinful.”
Duncan explained why the mandate represents a “grave, unique, and unprecedented” threat to religious liberty. The “coercion of conscience on issues touching marriage, sexuality, and issues of life itself” is a grave violation of rights and an overreach of its powers. Furthermore, the accommodations and exemptions half-heartedly offered by the administration have been based on the government’s assessment about the relative “religiosity” of organizations. Duncan claimed that they divide the world into “sacred and secular,” concluding even that the government perhaps has performed a literalist rendering of the verse “you cannot serve God and money” when refusing to exempt for-profit businesses from the mandate.
He claimed that it is also a challenge “unique to our times.” Duncan answered criticisms that the fight was not about religious liberty at all, but “just about insurance” by explaining that health care has become “the most important domestic issue of our time” and that the mandate is a “conscience problem mediated through an insurance problem.” The administration has also taken advantage of its position as arbiter of competing rights claims by defending certain rights above others while making metaphysical assumptions about the human person. Rather than the rights enshrined in the Constitution meant to limit the State’s power over the citizen, the Department of Health and Human Services has promoted rights against certain citizens.
CHBC invited Carl Trueman, professor at Westminster Theological Seminary and editor of Reformation21.org, to respond. He largely agreed with Duncan, speaking from his three roles: an employee of an institution affected by the mandate, a member of civic society, and a Christian and pastor. As an employee he asked if, practically, the mandate made much of a difference if insurance includes pooled money that is more than likely going to fund contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilization anyway. Duncan answered that, while that may be the case with insurance, the government is actively promoting the use of these drugs, making the conscience issues much more sensitive. Trueman pointed out that while he is not a citizen – he is British – he is still a member of civic society and that the diminution of the right to freedom of religion to freedom of “worship” is worrisome; however, he also questioned whether the administration making “theological judgments” is anything new. Citing Lawrence Wright’s new book on Scientology and the pseudo-religion’s tax exempt status, Trueman questioned whether the “government has been making theological judgments for a long time.”
Finally, Trueman admitted that he saw this as simply a continuation of a “slow and steady anti-Christian pattern” in legislative culture, but encouraged Christians not to lose hope. He read from 1 Peter 4:12-16 on suffering as a Christian and reminded the audience that, even if all civil liberties were stripped from believers, the gates of Hell will not prevail against Christ’s church.