Vulnerable people must not be held hostage to religious intolerance

With the Fortnight for Freedom called by our nation’s bishops concluded on the Fourth of July, several current issues remind us of the impact that attacks on religious liberty can have — not only on our Church and our own faith lives, but on the many vulnerable populations that depend on the services of the Catholic Church and other faith communities.

As reported on page one, the U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding President Obama’s health care reform law did not address the specific issue of whether the Department of Health Human Services (HHS) can — as they have taken it upon themselves to do — redefine the religious mission of the Catholic Church, and thereby require Catholic entities to act in violation of the Church’s moral teachings. That HHS has arbitrarily determined that the work of Catholic health care facilities, social service agencies, and certain Catholic educational institutions is not part of the Church’s mission strikes at the very heart of Catholic social teaching — and makes even more vulnerable millions of Americans suffering from illness and/or poverty whose care is an essential component of our religious mission.

Similarly, Laura Cassell’s powerful column (page 19) on the work that Catholic Charities has done to aid victims of human trafficking reminds us that here, too, HHS has acted to deny such Church-based assistance to a very vulnerable population. As with the HHS health care mandate, the department insisted that the U.S. Conference of Catholic  Bishops must provide contraception and abortion-inducing drugs as part of its “service” to human trafficking victims. When the bishops would not so violate Catholic moral teaching, HHS withdrew their $19 million federal grant — even though its own review process found the USCCB’s human trafficking program more effective than those of other grant recipients.

Locally, a bill that would give parents greater school choice in the education of their disabled children has passed both houses of the state legislature with bi-partisan support. Now, however, the public school establishment — joined by some of our secular media — are mounting an eleventh hour campaign to convince Gov. Andrew Cuomo to veto the legislation, and thereby deprive parents of any alternative to government schools for their disabled children.

However, as anyone who has worked with or parented children with disabilities knows, a one-size-fits-all approach does not serve such children adequately. That is why, as New York State Catholic Conference director for education James Cultrara told TLIC, federal and state law require that students with disabilities be given the opportunity to learn in the “least restrictive environment” possible, and also that they be given an Individualized Educational Program (IEP) that responds to their specific challenges and meets their individual educational needs.

While potential costs are a legitimate concern, Cultrara told TLIC, “we as a nation have an obligation to provide the best education we can to our most vulnerable children. For that reason alone,” he said, “Gov. Cuomo should sign this bill.”

Certainly, it should not be derailed by a one-size-fits-all mentality that in this case may be more about protecting the public school monopoly on government funds for education than what’s best for children with disabilities.

Each of these issues have in common a most insidious element: the use of vulnerable populations — those who are sick or poor, victims of human trafficking, disabled children — who are in effect being held hostage by powerful forces in and out of government that are determined to undermine the moral and social teachings of the Catholic Church.

For our Church and for all those we serve, those forces of religious intolerance must be defeated.