Religious Liberty Once Again Under Attack by the Cultural Elites

PITTSBURGH—L. Hafer of the Pittsburgh Daily Post paid a visit way back on June 9, 1847, to Mercy Hospital, the Catholic hospital begun by the Sisters of Mercy, a religious congregation founded in Ireland. The hospital had just opened its doors four months earlier in a former concert hall smack in the middle of the city on the cusp of transitioning from a frontier outpost to a major industrial hub.

“The Mother Superior very politely conducted us through the new institution, the cleanliness, neatness are everywhere seen,” Hafer wrote. “There are two rows of beds where the sick are brought and have every attention and kindness extended to them. . . . It is an institution intended for the accommodation of men and women of every race, creed and nationality.”

One year later, Mercy established the region’s first teaching hospital with resident physicians in training. Now, though, this hospital, along with many others across the country, is at risk because of a proposal by the Biden Administration—as we’ll soon discuss.

But back to the Sisters: Their Pittsburgh hospital, which now sits on a bluff on the edge of the central business district, has served the city through the Civil War, two world wars and several deadly pandemics. It remains Pittsburgh’s only Catholic hospital with specialized services, including neurosurgery, a Level I trauma unit and state-of-the-art burn services.

For most of its existence, the neighborhood it occupies, the Bluff, has been a mix of immigrants, minorities and students attending the adjacent Duquesne University, also a Catholic institution.

It is one of those very unique places in the world of medicine where patients receive spiritual healing and benefit from the best cutting-edge technology in the health care world. All the while, it maintains its mission of welcoming everyone since the day it opened, regardless of race, nationality, age, gender or religion.

There are currently 600 Catholic hospitals in the United States and more than 1,500 long-term care health facilities in the country. According to the Catholic Health Association’s statistics, 1 in 7 patients in the United States are cared for in a Catholic hospital, with many of them in underserved minority communities. Their collective mission remains the same since the day the Sisters of Mercy came here in the 19th century.

Cultural elites long have been skeptical of the reach of religious freedoms, let alone faith-based care. But their hostility toward these institutions has never been a coordinated effort until recently. Now, however, three powerful progressive cultural curators (federal and state regulators, legacy media and left-wing special interest groups) seemingly have banded together to force Catholic hospitals to violate their faith.

If successful, their effort would leave millions without health care access.

It began this summer when Biden’s appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services planned to revise Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act to add pregnancy termination, sexual orientation and gender identity to already existing “protections against discrimination on the basis of sex.”

In short, the proposal would reverse the Trump Administration protections that sought to allow health care professionals to opt out of performing procedures, such as abortions or gender reassignment surgeries, that violate their beliefs.

The usual groups against traditional faith piled on. Planned Parenthood, the nation’s leading provider of abortions, now offers hormone therapy for transgender and gender-nonconforming patients, so it issued a statement immediately praising the Biden administration rule that would punish such Catholic hospitals.

The United States Catholic Conference of Bishops, in turn, condemned the proposed rule, saying it threatens the Catholic Church’s ability to carry out healing ministries by mandating that health care workers perform life-altering surgeries to remove perfectly healthy body parts. The bishops also expressed their doubts that the HHS rule provided adequate religious-liberty protections: “Assurances that HHS will honor religious freedom laws offer little comfort when HHS is actively fighting court rulings that declared HHS violated religious freedom laws the last time they tried to impose such a mandate.”

The bishops’ conference called on HHS to disavow any such intent.

Interviews with experts in the Catholic health care system say the pressure from multiple powerful progressive institutions on their faith-based providers began in earnest in September when progressive activists began realizing that national Democrats were losing the argument with voters on abortion.

Stories in the New York Times and Washington Post went full-throttle from various angles attacking the Catholic health care system (questioning their charitable mission, their tax-exempt status and their profits), including an op-ed piece titled “I don’t want your god in charge of my health care.”

The consistent theme in most of the attacks was tying the number of Catholic hospitals there are in the country, and their growth, to the Supreme Court decision this summer overturning the alleged constitutional right to abortion. The theme’s undercurrent is that Catholic health systems’ religious restrictions should cast doubt on their licenses.

An administrator within the Catholic hospital system said the outside pressure is unlike anything he has seen.

Religious liberty is often overlooked by elite progressive groups as a prime reason people have immigrated here since before we even formed as a country, starting with reactions to religious persecution in England, Scotland and Germany in the 17th century. We all once understood that it’s ingrained in our national DNA to protect that liberty, as well as faith-based religious institutions and charities.

Elites don’t understand it because many of them lead secular lives surrounded in their professions, personal lives and neighborhoods with secular peers. They see religiosity as a freak show or a threat to their entitlements to abortions or gender reassignments rather than something with which, based on founding principles, they should coexist.

They also miss the faith-based groups right under their noses in their communities—not just in Catholic hospitals, but also in a variety of different faith-based services that serve the most at-risk in society who would not be able to provide those services without public funds.

The hostility toward the faith-based outfits rarely comes from the residents who surround their hospital or nearby communities; it is a new development crafted out of a new age of politics that began during the fight over Obamacare. Alas, it now has escalated during the Biden era largely because our cultural curators in legacy media, institutions, politics and government are now firmly all on the same, stridently anti-religious page.



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About Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner, and co-author (with Brad Todd) of The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics. To find out more about Salena and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

Photo: Shannon Casey, RN, helps Brenda Markle, a Covid-19 patient, get comfortable in her ICU room at UPMC Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on January 11, 2021. Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images.