When the president of the United States appeared on nationwide tv and radio to announce an “accommodation” in the dispute with the Catholic bishops, I did not expect anything good. If he had been planning to take any action in accord with the First Amendment, it would not have been labeled an “accommodation.” An accommodation is not the same thing as a solution. It is a way to avoid solving the problem. The announcement proved to be no solution at all. It is an accounting shell game. Instead of forcing employers whose religious scruples forbid contraception, abortion and sterilization, the regulation would force the insurance companies to provide those services at no charge to the insured individuals, and at no charge to the employers either. Our president thought nobody would guess that the insurance companies must obtain the money used to provide those “free” services from somewhere. They will obtain that money by restructuring premiums to collect enough money to prevent them from going bankrupt by providing all that free service. In plain English, this accommodation accommodated nothing and it solved nothing.
The accommodation did have a value, however. It demonstrated clearly this president’s complete disregard for the Constitution as a whole and the First Amendment specifically. He has told us in a number of speeches how much he objects to the limits the Constitution places on the federal government. When I hear it, I don’t complain along with him. I say, this Constitution is working exactly as designed. Our founders knew that in the course of human events, another despotic ruler might come along and be elected president. We have a president who feels every bit as affronted by the prospect of free people living their lives according to their own choices as King George III felt. He expresses it in a variety of ways, but lately, he seems to be very focused on suppressing religious freedom, something King George seemed not to worry about.
People of faith have run from all over the world to this country seeking the liberty we famously offer to every citizen: the freedom of religious expression without any government interference. Buddhists have come here. Muslims have come here. Hindus have come here. Christians have come here. People of many religious persuasions have come here when their home countries decided that free expression of religion was a threat to an autocratic government. They have come here in fear of their lives, and here in the USA they have found safety. They have brought their families, reared their children, enjoyed their faith, and nobody has ever interfered with them. The freedom to enjoy and express their faith no matter the faith has been a hallmark of American citizenship.
Lately it appears that this freedom is under assault. The most widely discussed issue is the regulation written by the Secretary of Health and Human Services that requires religious employers to buy insurance that provides free contraception, abortion and sterilization. Less widely known and discussed is the news that when the Bishops sent letters to Catholic military chaplains, exactly like the letters they sent to all pastors nationwide, letters that instructed Catholics on the church teachings regarding contraception, abortion and sterilization and reminding them that their adherence to the faith required them to refuse to comply with this regulation, the government told the Catholic military chaplains that if they read those letters to their congregations, they would be subject to be tried for sedition and treason for opposing an order of the president.
This is not all. The latest information I have received is that a program entitled Public Service Loan Forgiveness has been revised specifically to exclude individuals employed in religious jobs. The loans addressed by this program are student loans. The relevant part of the regulation provides loan forgiveness to someone employed by an organization classified “as tax-exempt by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC).” Without engaging in any judgment whether this is a good idea at all, I point out that the program specifically stated “The type or nature of employment with the organization does not matter for PSLF purposes. Additionally, the type of services that these public service organizations provide does not matter for PSLF purposes.”
In plain English, this program has, for many years, provided loan forgiveness for students who were employed in all sorts of 501 ( c ) 3 organizations. Churches are among the organizations that qualify for this classification. We all know that. Every church is tax-exempt, and donations to a church qualify for the deduction for charitable contributions. The rule applied until the end of January. Now the rules have changed.
As of February, there is a new paragraph that follows the statements quoted above. The new paragraph reads as follows:
“Generally, the type or nature of employment with the organization does not matter for PSLF purposes. However, if you work for a non-profit organization, your employment will not qualify for PSLF if your job duties are related to religious instruction, worship services, or any form of proselytizing.”
You can find details in this online article at http://tinyurl.com/7ntjhbz.
This change means that employees of churches no longer qualify for the loan forgiveness program. Again, I say that this post is not to argue with the logic or justification of student loan forgiveness. My point is to ask why, in February of 2012, the rules suddenly changed, and why this change excludes work for religious organizations.
The real question is this: what changed? The respect for religious organizations that has been part of the fabric of the culture of the United States for more than 200 years is no longer expressed in the administration of the federal government of this country. What motivated this change? These are really only a few of the issues I could list.
Our forefathers fought and died to create a country where they could be free. When the American Constitution was written, it was understood by its authors to be a statement of the boundaries for a central government. The founders believed that the government did not have the authority to do anything not named in that Constitution, and the Constitution did not authorize the central government to suppress or impede the expression of religion by any citizen. Some wise minds recognized that human nature being what it is, there needed to be a specific restraint on this government that prevented it from either establishing some single official religion or from persecuting or suppressing any religion. Who knew that we would today be asking ourselves what happened to that freedom?
Christians have survived a lot of governments. The Roman government first ignored and later persecuted Christians before eventually making Christianity the state religion. Across the centuries Christians have known feast and famine in their relationships with governments. Today we have to ask ourselves what we do about the things that are happening with our federal government. It is a big issue. We will not lose our faith or give up our faith even if the government should forbid our faith, but life will be different. It is already different.
How shall we live in this new world?