By Joel Gehrke
WASHINGTON — LCMS President Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison joined representatives of the Roman Catholic, evangelical Christian, and Jewish traditions in Washington, D.C., Feb.16 to testify before Congress on the threat to religious liberty posed by the contraception mandate recently promulgated by President Barack Obama’s Health and Human Services (HHS) department.
Harrison testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
He was accompanied to the nation’s Capitol by the Rev. John T. Pless, assistant professor of Pastoral Ministry and Missions at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind., and Ann Stillman, vice-president and general counsel for Concordia Plan Services.
Earlier, Harrison had released two statements to the Synod regarding the HHS ruling.
Also testifying before the committee chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., were the Most Reverend William E. Lori of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Dr. C. Ben Mitchell of Union University, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik of Yeshiva University and Dr. Craig Mitchell of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Harrison opened his testimony before the committee by explaining why he would have preferred not to appear before the lawmakers.
“Our task is to proclaim, in the words of the blessed apostle St. John, the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses us from all our sins,” he said of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. “I’m here to express our deepest distress over the HHS provisions. We are religiously opposed to supporting abortion-causing drugs.”
The contraception mandate that HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced in late January required even religiously affiliated institutions, such as LCMS charities and Roman Catholic hospitals, to provide free contraception services to employees. President Obama announced an “accommodation” of religious concerns last week that would require insurance companies to provide the services rather than religious organizations, but he failed to reassure opponents of the contraception mandate.
“Despite this ‘accommodation,’ the rule hasn’t been changed,” Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, R-N.Y., explained during the hearing. “It was a verbal [accommodation],” she added, noting that “nothing was put in writing, which is always a concern.”
Soloveichik also spoke against what he called “the putative accommodation” during his testimony. “The religious organizations would still be obligated to provide employees with an insurance policy that facilitates acts violating the organization’s religious tenets,” Soloveichik told the Committee before indicting the mandate more broadly.
“In refusing to extend religious liberty beyond the parameters of what the administration chooses to deem religious conduct, the administration denies people of faith the ability to define their religious activity,” the rabbi said in discussing the Obama Administration’s decision to exempt churches and explicit houses of worship from the rule as first conceived. “The administration impedes religious liberty by unilaterally redefining what it means to be religious,” he added.
Democratic proponents of the mandate delayed the witnesses’ testimony by arguing that the HHS mandate primarily involved issues of female reproductive rights, not religious liberty. “The pill has had a profound impact on [womens’] well-being — far more than any man in this room can possibly know,” said Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., before suggesting that the Republicans had committed “a massive injustice” by failing to host women supportive of the mandate on the panel that morning.
“Where are the women?” added Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., in a question to Committee Chairman Issa, whom she faulted for convening a witness panel without “one single individual representing the tens of millions of women across the country who want and need insurance coverage” for contraception.
As the hearing proceeded, one Democrat expanded on Cummings’ initial claim that Issa was using the hearing to “promot[e] a conspiracy theory” about the Obama administration infringing on religious liberty.
“I believe that today’s hearing is a sham,” Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., told the assembled pastors, priest and rabbi. “And so I say to you, as a member of this committee who actually shared the concerns you say you have last week, that I think this is a shameful exercise, and I am very sad you have chosen to participate and be used the way you’re being used.”
Harrison addressed the charge of assisting in “political demagoguery” a few minutes after Connolly spoke.
“I really loathe the partisan nature of this discussion,” Harrison told the committee. “Ninety-eight percent of what I do — of what the Missouri Synod does — is completely bipartisan. We represent a large church body. … [Our] constituents are in some way equally divided between Democrats and Republicans. We do not operate in a partisan way.”
Harrison also told the committee that he and the LCMS pray daily for President Obama’s well-being and for the nation, in keeping with Martin Luther’s Eighth Commandment exhortation in the Small Catechism to “defend, speak well of him and put the best construction on everything.
“I know this is a different game here,” Harrison observed. “This is hard-core politics.
“I’m here because there is a narrow but very significant provision in the HHS provisions that is, I believe, very dangerous to religious people with our kind of convictions — and it’s also dangerous to any religious people with unique convictions,” he concluded.
That afternoon, Harrison returned to St. Louis in time to preach at the opening worship service of the 2012 Southern Illinois District Convention, which is being held through Feb. 18 in O’Fallon, Ill.
Joel Gehrke is a Commentary Staff Writer for The Washington Examiner. He is a member of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and attends Immanuel Lutheran Church in Alexandria, Va.
Posted Feb. 17, 2012