When describing how his disciples should serve the needy, Jesus told a parable about a Good Samaritan who rescued a traveler who had been robbed and left for dead. This businessman didn't care that his act of kindness took place in public and that the injured man didn't share his faith.
This raises an haunting question for those involved in the church-state struggles surrounding the Health and Human Services mandate requiring most religious institutions to offer their employees, and often students, health-insurance plans covering sterilizations and all FDA-approved contraceptives, including "morning-after pills."
As Sister Mary Ann Walsh of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops noted in an online memo: "HHS has such a narrow standard as to who operates a religious ministry, Jesus himself couldn't pass muster."
After all, the Good Samaritan wasn't ordained and didn't work for a church or a non-profit ministry, noted Stanley Carlson-Thies, president of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance. He spoke during a recent religion-and-politics symposium at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., which was streamed online.
Also, this businessman provided food and health care and the "very point of the story" is that he "cared for the injured man even though ... the man was of a different religion," stressed Carlson-Thies. Today, it would appear that any ministry that follows Jesus "by giving a cup of cold water to anyone who needs it, including those of other or no religion ... has put itself outside the category of a religious employer."
After all, the HHS mandate only recognizes the conscience rights of employers if they "fit a particular tax code definition that applies only to churches and their closely controlled affiliates," he said. These non-profit employers must have the "inculcation of religious values" as their goal, primarily employ persons who share their "religious tenets" and primarily serve persons who share those same tenets.
The mandate has created a legal storm. Critics are asking whether the White House is promoting a two-tier approach to the First Amendment -- with "freedom of worship" favored over a broader right to the "free exercise" of religious liberty. Currently, an unprecedented number of lawsuits against the federal government -- 54 cases with more than 160 plaintiffs -- are creeping through the courts.
Meanwhile, noted Carlson-Thies, some branches of the government seem confused about what forms of religious work they want to encourage in public life.
For example, if leaders of religious organizations want to fit into the exempt category under the HHS mandate, they must be willing to violate the federal rules governing the faith-based initiative that seeks to promote cooperation between religious groups and the state. After all, he said, the faith-based initiative "requires groups that receive federal dollars to serve everyone, without regard to faith."
But there are complications that mandate opponents must acknowledge, said political scientist Leah Seppanen Anderson, responding to Carlson-Thies. For example, many schools, hospitals and social agencies that retain some ties to religious bodies also are willing to hire employees, and admit students, that do not affirm their doctrines or practice their faith.
Anderson noted that she teaches at Wheaton College and willingly signs a covenant expressing support for this evangelical school's approach to life and faith. However, this is not the case on campuses such as Georgetown University and the University of Notre Dame. Many women work, study and teach there and have not signed doctrinal covenants.
"What about these women, then? Why does the religious freedom of these organizations, who choose to hire people who do not ... necessarily share their religious values and convictions" matter so much, she asked, but "these women either have their religious freedom limited or their health-care options limited?"
It would be better, she said, if American public life continued to welcome many different religious perspectives on these kinds of divisive issues, but "that may not be the reality."
In the end, stressed Carlson-Thies, that kind of broad civic tolerance is what must be defended.
"To my mind," he said, "this is the most significant religious freedom challenge in our country in our time -- to struggle against these restrictive trends in order to preserve the freedom of faith-based organizations to serve the public in a countercultural way, to follow what they believe God calls them to do even when those practices differ from the popular consensus."