While many have focused on the so-called “contraception issue” of the Health and Human Services (HHS) Mandate, still many others have realized that this federal law attacks the very identity of the Catholic Church and other faith-based groups in this country. At its root, the HHS Mandate is guilty of “identity theft.” The Mandate is an attempt to strip religious institutions and individuals of their identity and thus force them to act against their conscience and core beliefs.

Religious liberty in our nation has always involved more than merely the “freedom to attend a religious service.” For Catholics, faith integrally informs and gives life to all of our actions, including various charitable outreaches, such as Catholic social services, healthcare, and education. Faith motivates and, in fact, is the underlying inspiration for all of our works. This is an important truth of the Catholic Church which contradicts those who claim that they only, ‘do their religion on Sunday, in church.’

In this country, the Catholic Church and others have long enjoyed the freedom to live out their religious faith without unnecessary government intrusion. However, the HHS Mandate demands that religious organizations and individuals provide abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraception, which are contrary to both our core beliefs and our identities as religious individuals. Specifically, for an institution to know whether it is religious enough to meet the government’s exemption standard, it must submit to an investigation whereby federal employees determine whether the institution hires and serves “primarily” those of the same belief.

Part of “living out” our Catholic Faith is to serve all people in need. However, in order to be exempt from the Mandate, Catholic organizations will be forced to stop serving non-Catholics and fire non-Catholic employees (even though Catholic schools and social services are open to all). Catholic organizations would no longer simply ask, “are you hungry?,” but instead, “are you Catholic?” before extending services.

Helping all people in need is rooted in our Faith, it is who we are—our very identity. This identity and way of living out our Faith, however, will soon be outlawed. Since the poor and those in need have always been the primary recipients of Catholic charity, they too have much to lose as a result of this governmental decision.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has announced that the federal government is now “at war” with those who disagree with the HHS. We did not choose or desire such a war: but our government has unilaterally imposed war on all citizens who disagree with this Mandate, including Catholics who strive to help others.

This violation of our religious liberty and freedom of conscience has been deemed “necessary,” so as to ensure that every citizen has access to abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraception. Even if these “services” were necessary, coercing individuals to betray their conscience and religious identity would not be the prudent or humane course of action.

The issue is clearly not about whether people have a “right”, or “access to”, abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraception. In a most profound way, the Mandate is “identity theft.” The government is attempting to coerce Catholics, and other religious organizations, into violating their conscience and core beliefs. This is an attack on who we are as Catholics, as well as the faith-imbued manner in which we have always served both Catholics and non-Catholics alike. 

-Most Rev. Frank J. Dewane is the Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Venice in Florida