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Mitchell to congressional committee: Government mandate an ‘unconscionable intrusion’

C. Ben Mitchell testifies before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Feb. 16.
C. Ben Mitchell testifies before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Feb. 16.

WASHINGTONFeb. 16, 2012 – A U.S. government mandate requiring religious organizations to provide contraceptive and abortifacient coverage for employees is “an unconscionable intrusion by the state into the consciences of American citizens,” Union University professor C. Ben Mitchell told a congressional committee Feb. 16.

“Contrary to portrayals in some of the popular media, this is not just a Catholic issue,” Mitchell said before the House of Representatives’ Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. “All people of faith—and even those who claim no faith—have a stake in whether or not the government can violate the consciences of its citizenry. Religious liberty and the freedom to obey one’s conscience is also not just a Baptist issue. It is an American issue enshrined in our founding documents.”

Mitchell, the Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union, was one of 11 scheduled witnesses to testify at the committee hearing, entitled “Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?” In his opening statement, Mitchell cited the contributions Baptists have made historically to the concept of religious liberty.

“I stand in the rich legacy of individuals like Roger Williams, a one-time Baptist and the founder of Providence Plantation which later became the state of Rhode Island, who declared in no uncertain terms that the violation of a person’s religious conscience was nothing less than ‘the rape of the soul,’” Mitchell said. “Williams understood that forcing a person through the power of the state to violate his or her own conscience is a monstrous harm.”

Mitchell quoted from Massachusetts Baptist minister John Leland, a friend of James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and other American founders, who in 1791 said that “every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in that way that he can best reconcile it to his conscience.” He also cited a famous sermon on religious liberty by Texas Baptist pastor George W. Truett delivered on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in 1920.

Mitchell said he had two reasons for citing these historical examples.

“On the one hand, it is to remind us that what American University law professor Daniel Dreisbach and his co-editor Mark David Hall have called ‘the sacred rights of conscience,’ which we Americans enjoy, were secured at an extraordinary cost,” Mitchell said. “On the other hand, it is to remind us that as Truett said later in his sermon, religious liberty was, at least largely, ‘a Baptist achievement,’ for the common good. Every American is a beneficiary of this legacy; we are all freeloading on their sacrifice.”

In his concluding comments, Mitchell addressed what the Obama administration has considered to be an accommodation to the HHS mandate by requiring that insurance companies pay for contraceptives and abortifacient drugs if religious organizations object to doing so.

“The Obama Administration’s most recent so-called ‘accommodation’ for religious organizations is no accommodation at all,” Mitchell said. “It is a bait and switch scheme, in my view, of the most egregious sort.”

Also testifying on the same panel as Mitchell were Craig Mitchell, associate professor of ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; William Lori, a Roman Catholic bishop; Matthew Harrison, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod; and Meir Soloveichik, a Jewish rabbi.

Media contact: Tim Ellsworth, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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