SIMSBURY – St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center faces fines of $24 million a month under a federal mandate issued under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
That and other serious implications that the Affordable Care Act and the department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) mandate will have on Americans’ right to religious freedom were presented to a full hall at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in West Simsbury on June 8. It was the second program in a series about “The Catholic Church in the Public Square.”
The topic for the three-person panel was “The Developing Conflict: The Church and the Affordable Care Act: What it Means for Faith, Family and Freedom.” The speakers were Father Tad Pacholczyk, director of education for the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC); Daniel P. O’Connell, chairman of the Board of Directors of St. Francis Care; and Attorney Jeff Mateer, general counsel for the Liberty Institute in Plano, Texas. The Liberty Institute specializes in matters of religious freedom, including free exercise, free speech, land use and public acknowledgement of religious cases.
What the mandate requires
Father Pacholczyk explained that the mandate requires employers and insurers to provide a “full range of [FDA-approved] contraceptive methods,” including surgical sterilizations and abortafacients, such as Plan B (the “day-after pill”), IUDs and Ella (“week-after pill”).
These church-condemned methods fall under “preventive” health services according to the mandate, Father Pacholczyk said, but the crafting of the law was flawed. “There were no invited experts, no testimony from the largest provider of nongovernmental health care: the Catholic Church.”
Religious employers who refuse to pay for the insurance based on their religious principles will suffer exorbitant fines. As a result, many may not be able to continue delivering social services to the poor and needy, and ultimately may be forced to close.
When it comes to Catholic health care facilities, Father Pacholczyk said, the services that HHS calls “preventive” and that church teaching forbids are prohibited because they violate human dignity and are “not sound medical care.” Father Pacholczyk noted that “virtually all insurance plans are subject to the mandate, and no insurers want to go against the law.” He added, “Religious freedom means little to nothing to this [Obama] administration. No one can be coerced by the state to be complicit in commission of a wrong.”
Hospital mission threatened
Mr. O’Connell said St. Francis Hospital’s mission of healing is being threatened. “Care of the sick is a mandate from Jesus,” he said. St. Francis has been a Catholic health care provider since 1897; it was founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chambéry. It is the largest Catholic hospital in New England.
“We are committed to health and healing through excellence, compassionate care and reverence for the spirituality of each person,” said Mr. O’Connell.
The mandate now wields “substantial influence over St. Francis,” Mr. O’Connell said, especially because half of the hospital’s revenues are government sources. The hospital must comply with the contraceptive mandate under duress, or the fines would amount to $24 million a month. He said, “The economic coercion is a threat to the hospital’s existence.”
Fine threat ‘outrageous’
Attorney Mateer said that the threatened $24 million fine is “outrageous.” He said, “I’m angry the government is forcing a Catholic hospital to violate its religious beliefs.”
He explained that Liberty Institute is “the largest law firm solely preserving religious liberty in the U.S.” The various legal matters on its docket include defending public school students of faith and 10 Commandment displays, and defending the rights of churches and religious ministries.
Mr. Mateer said that the current legal climate surrounding the mandate is just one symptom of a larger problem facing people of faith.
“The government is telling us what we can and cannot do and is invading our freedom of conscience. … How we as believers respond is critical.”
There is good news, however, he said. “People of faith are standing up in courts, challenging the constitutionality” of the mandate. With over 300 plaintiffs and 100 lawsuits seeking judicial protection for religious beliefs, judges can file injunctions that keep the government from forcing the plaintiffs to follow the mandate.
“We’re winning more than losing; with 67 out of the 100 decisions made, there are 59 wins, eight losses. That’s an 88 percent win rate,” he said. Of those, he added, for-profit plaintiffs won 35 and lost six, while nonprofits won 24 and lost two.
What one can do
During the question-and-answer period, one person asked what people can do to protect themselves from First Amendment encroachment. Some in the audience chanted, “Vote, vote, vote.”
Mr. Mateer agreed, “Voting matters. The president appoints all judges on all courts. [President Obama] has appointed more federal judges than any other president.” He also encouraged sponsorship of more educational events such as the panel discussion.
He added, “Our enemies have lots of people working for them. We need more people to stand up now.”
The panel discussion was presented by Defenders of Faith of St. Catherine’s and the Church of St. Ann in Avon.