Catholic ministries in Western Pennsylvania recently got a reprieve. On Jan. 1, the Department of Health and Human Services will begin imposing a nationwide mandate that forces most Catholic colleges, hospitals and social service ministries to violate church teachings or face crippling fines. The Dioceses of Pittsburgh and Erie launched religious liberty challenges against that regulation in federal court, a challenge we recently won.
Before getting to the point of this op-ed piece, I must note that this is NOT an issue against universal health care. The church has long advocated for health care for all, which is the proposed intent of the Affordable Care Act. The Diocese of Pittsburgh has always provided excellent health care.
Our problem is not with the Affordable Care Act, but with the HHS mandate, which requires employers with religious objections to violate their consciences. If their religious beliefs prevent them from facilitating access to certain morally objectionable items, they’ll face punitive fines.
Fortunately, the court in our cases agreed that this mandate substantially burdens our religious exercise.
The court has prevented the government from enforcing it against our dioceses and related ministries such as Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh, St. Martin Center, Prince of Peace Center and Erie Catholic Preparatory School.
As the court found, these ministries alone provide tens of thousands of acts of service to our communities. These good works are essential not only to our faith but to those served and to the common good.
Other Catholic institutions around the country are not so fortunate. While many have filed lawsuits, judicial decisions at this stage do not cover everyone. Without a court decision to protect them, Catholic schools, hospitals and social service ministries can only seek protection from Congress or the administration.
Regrettably, the administration has refused to listen to the concerns of Catholics despite our willingness to otherwise work toward our shared goal of accessible, life-affirming health care.
That leaves Congress. Unless Congress acts, as the HHS mandate takes effect many religious employers will be forced to pay heavy government fines that will endanger their ability to carry out their ministries.
Those ministries are extensive. Service to those in need is central to the Catholic faith, and our dioceses serve all our neighbors without regard to their religion.
Our social service ministries help the homeless, offer free health care, support pregnancy and parenting programs and help meet the needs of senior citizens, among many other activities.
In 2012 alone, Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh provided 239,089 acts of service to people in need, among them the nearly 8,000 people who received medical or dental care at our Free Health Clinic.
Catholic ministries in the Diocese of Erie provide similar services.
To take two examples, St. Martin Center helps struggling individuals and families get back on their feet and Prince of Peace Center’s soup kitchen serves about 5,700 people a year.
Our communities are fortunate that for now these programs won’t face crippling government fines.
But consider those local numbers and extend them to other communities across Pennsylvania and throughout the nation.
Those places are served by Catholic ministries as well, and in most places they have no judicial protection from the overwhelming fines the mandate imposes.
When the government begins implementing the mandate, the poor and those who serve them stand to suffer the most.
Congress can prevent this from happening. The House has previously passed language to delay enforcement of these fines long enough to give the courts a chance to rule in defense of our religious freedom.
Our senators, Pat Toomey and Bob Casey, should now take the lead in the Senate to prevent our ministries from being fined for witnessing to the fullness of our faith.
They both know that we’re called to live our faith not just within the four walls of a church on Sundays, but through service to our neighbors each and every day. They also surely know that the government has now granted many significant exemptions and delays from the health-care law.
Yet people of faith seem to be the only ones whose concerns are not being heard by our president and his administration, even as multiple courts have found that the mandate unlawfully infringes on religious freedom.
It’s time for Congress to provide relief from this burdensome mandate for those who seek to live by their faith. The fines that the mandate is designed to impose will harm the charitable activities of countless colleges, hospitals and social services across Pennsylvania and the country.
To our senators: Please stand with us and lead the way.
David A. Zubik is bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.