Never say “never.” We’ve all heard that one before.
Religious liberty was once sacrosanct in the public policy debate. Many laws included a conscience exception to preserve constitutional integrity. It was absurd to think a law would compel a person to do something against his or her firmly held religious beliefs. Policy makers said, “It’ll never happen.”
But, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference (PCC) is currently advocating two issues which have the potential to blur the line of religious liberty: a conscience exception for Catholic hospitals concerning emergency contraception and the marriage protection amendment.
Proposed legislation would require Pennsylvania hospitals to give emergency contraception to sexual assault victims on demand. Catholic hospitals already provide emergency contraception to sexual assault victims to prevent ovulation or fertilization of an egg by the sperm of the assailant; but do not administer emergency contraception when tests determine there is a likelihood that fertilization has occurred. Emergency contraception according to its manufacturer at times may prevent implantation of a fertilized egg, thus ending a new life. The Catholic Church’s position is that life begins at conception – that is, fertilization of an egg. The proposed legislation does not allow for this exception. The Pennsylvania Catholic Health Association (PCHA) and the PCC are fighting for a conscience exception so Catholic facilities will not have to provide a treatment that goes against moral teaching.
The Abortion Control Act of 1989 provides a protection of conscience clause that assures health care facilities do not have to participate in administering abortifacients. In the Church’s view, a drug which terminates life is abortifacient in nature. In 1989, policy makers said Catholic hospitals would never be forced to perform abortions. The legislature upheld the Commonwealth’s long tradition of religious liberty back then; so why is there even consideration of forcing Catholic hospitals to provide a service they find morally reprehensible now?
Religious liberty is also part of the battle to defend marriage. The PCC is advocating an amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution defining marriage as the union between one man and one woman. Same-sex marriage and civil unions are now legal in several other states, and there is an impact on religious liberty which goes beyond government authorized “marriage.”
In Massachusetts, for example, it is illegal to discriminate against same-sex couples. As a result, Boston Catholic Charities ended its adoption services because the law would have required the agency to place children for adoption with same-sex couples and thereby force them to go against Church teaching. Catholic Charities in Boston has been serving the community for over 100 years. Their forefathers would never believe the agency had to choose between religious liberty and a program that serves hundreds of children in need.
Without a marriage protection amendment Pennsylvania could be faced with a similar moral dilemma. Marriage amendment opponents say that clergy would never be forced to perform marriages between same sex couples. But how can we trust that to remain true? Our experiences with emergency contraception and Boston Catholic Charities are just two of many examples of why we can never trust “never.”
PCC Column June 2007 by Amy Beisel, Communications Director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference – the public affairs arm of Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops and the Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania.