The Obama administration’s definition of what constitutes a religious organization is so narrow that Mother Teresa herself would have not have qualified, a prominent Catholic official told Newsmax on Monday.
That startling perspective was offered by Chancellor Jane Belford of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.
Her remarks reflect the growing controversy over the administration’s effort to force religious-affiliated charitable organizations -- or their insurance companies -- to cover birth-control pills, morning-after abortion pills, and sterilization procedures that the Catholic church finds morally objectionable.
On Monday, the Washington Archdiocese filed one of 12 lawsuits nationwide representing the interests of 43 separate Catholic institutions.
The lawsuits claim that new Health and Human Services rules, which mandate what services must be offered in healthcare insurance policies, violate the organization’s religious-liberty rights under the First Amendment.
“Mother Teresa in her work of caring for the poor and trying to deal with misery and suffering, Mother Teresa’s work was not religious. That’s what this says, and that is now the law,” Belford told Newsmax.
Belford’s point is that Mother Teresa -- who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for her self-sacrificial charitable endeavors in India and other nations -- served the poorest of the poor without regard to whether they were Catholic. That would disqualify her work for an exemption from the Obamacare mandates that Catholics find objectionable.
“Catholic charities do not inquire as to the faith of the people they hire,” Belford said. “And I can assure you it never inquires as to the faith of the people it serves.
“We say, ‘Are you hungry?’ ‘Are you homeless? Are you sick?’ But we don’t say first, ‘Are you Catholic, because if you’re not we can’t be Catholic and help you,’” Belford said.
Chancellor is the highest ecclesiastical or decision-making office a layperson can hold in the Catholic Church. Belford is the first woman and the first layperson to hold this position in the history of the Archdiocese. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick appointed her to that post on March 23, 2001.
Belford is also an accomplished attorney who earned her law degree with honors from the Georgetown University Law Center in 1978. She practiced law for many years in Washington, D.C. and was formerly a partner in the firm of Foley & Lardner.
The lawsuits stem from the same controversy that forced President Barack Obama in February to back off of a plan to require faith-based charities to cover the controversial procedures for their employees.
Obama later decided the government would require the insurance companies, rather than the faith-based charities themselves, those procedures.
Catholic leaders at the time said the “accommodation” was inadequate because many Catholic organizations are self-insured, meaning they act as their own insurance carrier. Also, because insurance companies stay in business by passing along their costs to their customers in the form of higher premiums, they objected they would still be paying for procedures that violate their religious beliefs, albeit indirectly.
Belford emphasized the lawsuit is not about contraception, but rather religious liberty.
“What we’re challenging is the right of the government to tell us, as bona fide religious organizations, that we have to act in conflict with our religious beliefs,” she told Newsmax.
“That’s the problem: The exemption in the mandate is written so narrowly as to define away our religious freedom. Because there’s virtually no Catholic organization that actually qualifies, except perhaps for a ‘house of worship.’”
Under the rules issued by the Health and Human Services department, Obama administration will only exempt from the controversial procedures organizations that meet the following standards:
- Their primary purpose must be the inculcation of their religious beliefs -- which is not the primary function of Catholic schools, hospitals, or other charitable organizations.
- They must primarily hire people of their own faith. So if they have more non-Catholics than Catholics on staff, they would not qualify.
- Finally, the organizations must primarily serve people of their own faith, rather than the public-at-large.
It is that definition of what it means to be a religious organization, which Catholic leaders have been unsuccessful in persuading the Obama administration to change, that has precipitated the lawsuits. Catholic leaders insist that helping the disadvantaged is as much a part of their faith as worshipping God inside the four walls of a church.
“Part of the fundamental core of our beliefs as a Catholic is not only acts of worship, but acts of service: ‘Love God, love your neighbor’ -- those are our two greatest commandments,” Belford explained.
She indicated it is wrong to force Catholics to choose between their religious beliefs and helping others.
“This definition takes our faith and declares it is not a bona fide religion,” Belford said. “It’s unprecedented, and the media has just totally declined to cover this angle.
“... If this definition is allowed to stand, it essentially says that religious organizations who act based on their beliefs, on their requirement to serve their fellow man because that’s what their faith teaches and that’s what their faith impels them to do, this definition says: Stay inside your church, and we’ll leave you alone. Step outside your church into the public square, and you are not religious; that is not religion,” she said.
How cities and states around the nation would cope without the participation of Catholic social ministries is an open question.
In the nation’s capital, for example, the archdiocese provided social services to over 100,000 people last year. That made it the largest nongovernmental provider of social services in the region.
Belford added that the Obama administration’s “accommodation” does not work.
“It changes nothing,” she said. “It’s nonsense to suggest that the way to protect religious freedom is to transfer the cost of providing mandated coverage away from an employer, and onto an insurance company. Many organizations, including the archdiocese, are self-insured.
“We are the insurer, so what does that say to us? That just tells us we have to provide it.
She added: “We’re expected to believe that the insurance company is going to cover them for free and not pass that cost along by way of increased premiums or fees. It’s just preposterous.”
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