From the email inbox of Bishop Bruskewitz - UPDATED

The good news is, the discussion of religious freedom at the bishops' conference has not focused solely on Catholics or Christians. The bad news is that this is how Muslims came up:

Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz: I haven't had a chance to read the Obamacare Protection Act, but somebody told me that there's a total exemption for Muslims in the back of that act, that all Muslims are exempt because insurance, for Muslims, is a type of gambling, which is contrary to the Koran, and therefore Muslims are not obliged in any way to observe the insurance mandate which derives from the act. I'm not sure if that's true or not; I just want to know if any of you know anything about it.

He was addressing his question to Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore and to John H. Garvey, the president of Catholic University, both of whom had just finished their presentations to the assembly. (I'll link to the video at the end of this post.)The bishop from Nebraska is misinformed: there is no exemption for Muslims buried "in the back" of the Affordable Care Act. The claim has been circulated in some chain emails, and yes, has debunked it (, too). It plays to a number of popular themes in anti-Obama right-wing discourse, which you will recognize if you have been on the receiving end of such emails (or, as Michael Sean Winters says, if you watch a lot of Fox News): there is, first of all, the strange conviction that Muslims are getting off easy in America because everyone is bending over backward to avoid offending them. Related to that is the suspicion that President Obama is himself a Muslim, or perhaps just a bit more sympathetic to Muslims than befits an American leader. Then there is the objection (this one fairly mainstream) that the bill is so long and complicated that "no one" knows what it says. And these accusations are often accompanied by dark warnings about "creeping sharia" and the Muslim plot to take over our nation.In other words, there's a lot of ugly baggage that goes along with what was, I trust, an innocent query on Bruskewitz's part.

He seemed to earnestly believe that what he described was a possibility, and I suppose it's good that he knew enough to say "I'm not sure if that's true." But to believe that it is true requires one to believe that the Obama Administration has succeeded in slipping something this controversial past everyone, save for a few brave freedom fighters sending out chain emails. Anyone who has spent any time thinking about the implications of the Affordable Care Act, as at least some of the bishops have, ought to be able to say confidently that this is not so.

Gregory Metzger, who recently wrote an article for Commonweal lamenting the lack of attention to anti-Muslim prejudice in the bishops' statement "Our First, Most Cherished Liberty," blogged about the distressing exchange. As he points out, it's not just Bruskewitz's ignorance that's troubling; there's also the response, or rather non-response, from the rest of the room. Lori makes a nervous joke (because gosh, that bill is long, amirite?), Garvey does likewise, and then Cardinal Timothy Dolan calls on Cardinal Francis George, who moves on to something else. Bruskewitz's wild speculation hangs there, uncorrected. [Update: At the beginning of the next session, Bishop Richard E. Pates took a moment before his own presentation to note that Muslims are not, in fact, exempt. Thank you to John Page for pointing this out in the comments. I've included Pates's remarks at the bottom of the post.] I know bishops don't like telling other bishops they're wrong in public. But in this case, given what's at stake -- that is, the need for the bishops to be seen as credible and informed voices on the subject of religious liberty and the related provisions of the Affordable Care Act -- couldn't someone have gone out on that limb? Bishop Lori is supposed to be the point man on this issue for the bishops' conference. He can't bring himself to say, "You know, I'm pretty sure that's not right"? Metzger:

Bishop Lori--you really don't know if the document you have spent the better part of the last 18 months criticizing does or does not allow for an entire religious group to exempt itself from its reach? Then why should we trust your judgments about the President's actions on religious freedom?

Perhaps the trouble is that the issue is complicated. No, there's no secret Muslim exemption hidden at the end of the ACA. But the act does leave room for the possibility of exemptions on religious grounds, as noted in the writeup. There is no reason to believe Muslims will apply or qualify for such an exemption, but there may be groups who will, and the government will consider those applications, weighing competing freedoms and benefits and historical precedent as it so often does in such cases.The bishops' resistance to the contraception mandate in the ACA has generally failed to acknowledge the complicated history of religious freedom and government policy, as many of the contributors to our forum pointed out. Here, for example, is Cardinal Dolan's proposed solution, from a recent column in Catholic New York:

All Washington has to do is say, "Any entity that finds these mandates morally objectionable is not coerced to do them," and leave it there. Don't get into the red tape in trying to mandate for us how our good works should be defined.

How simple! How constitutional! How American!

While I agree with the cardinal about the troubling aspects of this particular mandate and its limited exemption for religious institutions, I wonder if he's thought about the implications of writing the language he suggests into law. It seems to me "getting into red tape" is basically the definition of legislation -- the protest the bishops ought to be making is not against the very fact of legal distinctions where religious objections to a law are concerned. The distinctions have to be made, and the aim is to make them well.

A straightforward answer to Bruskewitz's question might force the bishops into an uncomfortable position. After all, based on their reasoning about the HHS contraception mandate, if Muslims did object on moral and religious grounds to buying health insurance, shouldn't they be allowed to refuse? Wouldn't that make this an unjust law, and therefore no law at all, where they are concerned?

You can watch the whole exchange on the USCCB website: go here and click on the video titled "2012 Spring General Assembly Afternoon Session Part 1." Then skip ahead to 1:31, close to the end of the nearly two-hour session, for the exchange with Bruskewitz.

P.S. While you're watching, stay tuned to hear Cardinal George offer a caution about invoking St. Thomas More, who was called on by Garvey at the end of his speech: "Thomas More taught us that we need religious liberty. More important, he taught us that loving God is worth dying for," Garvey said. George pointed out that More also sent people to their deaths in his defense of the truth, making him a complicated patron for the cause of religious liberty today. Good for George.

Update: Go to the same page and click on the video titled "2012 Spring General Assembly Afternoon Session Part 2" to hear Bishop Pates correct Bishop Bruskewitz's misinformation, right at the beginning. Here is what he says:

Bishop Richard E. Pates: Our very capable staff here at the conference very quickly researched the question that Bishop Bruskewitz raised with regard to the Muslims, and they've asked me to say that they are not exempt. And so, if you have further questions, they would invite you to consult with the staff here, but that they already have had some questions through the media, et cetera, about the exact status of the exemption, but it's not the case, as I understand it.

Good for Bishop Pates and the conference staff.

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

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