A 15-year-old girl spray-painted the words on pale yellow aluminum siding perched oddly on a slab of concrete: “For sale! Fixer upper.”
Hours earlier, the siding had been part of a wall and the slab the front porch of her grandmother’s home in Harrisburg, Ill.
The good-humored graffiti was probably the rosiest reaction possible after 45 tornadoes swept through 10 states in the Midwest and South, flattening entire towns.
In Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels hailed citizens’ precautions to seek shelter from the storms. “Yet all things that mere mortals can do aren’t enough sometimes,” Daniels told reporters while surveying the damage.
Even in the aftermath of what insurance companies call “acts of God,” we mere mortals still may feel powerless. “Fixing up” lives, homes and neighborhoods will require superhuman perseverance.
Thankfully, many angels of mercy have appeared in devastated communities. Religious groups such as Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and Catholic Charities are providing basic necessities.
What’s more important, faith-based groups have the capacity to deal with deeper damage: psychological shock, grief over lost loved ones and fear of the unknown in a world turned upside down. And they have staying power to help storm-stricken survivors summon the will to persevere through months, if not years, of rebuilding.
Such groups show up because of their faith. Motivated by the belief that God has shown them mercy, they consider it a mandate to extend mercy by serving others. That’s why they’ve invested major resources over decades – in some cases a century or more – to build up their capacity to help victims of disaster as well as the poor, sick, elderly, orphaned and unborn.
So why would anyone penalize good Samaritans for the very beliefs that motivate them to do so much good in communities across America and around the world? That’s a question many ask about a federal government mandate, under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, forcing religious groups to provide employee health coverage for controversial abortion-inducing drugs.
Popularly called “Obamacare,” the health-care law mandates what employers must cover, what insurers must offer and what individuals must buy. (That last part, known as the “individual mandate,” is the subject of a case to be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in late March.)
Bureaucrats are beginning to write specific rules for coverage, and the Department of Health and Human Services recently released its requirements for preventive health services.
The HHS mandate forces insurance plans, including those carried by religious employers, to cover abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilization-even if such coverage violates their beliefs. As the mandate stands, only houses of worship will be exempted.
Religious groups that serve the public – think of those reaching out right now in tornado-torn communities – will be forced to violate their conscience or be hit by penalties for failing to comply or dropping coverage.
In other words, good Samaritans face a fine on faith. Employers that don’t comply with the government mandate, the Congressional Research Service reports, could be fined $100 per day for each employee.
The HHS mandate could jeopardize the very existence of the service ministries of some religious groups. Not surprisingly, many groups and individual Americans have called for this anti-conscience mandate to be rescinded and for Obamacare, which is sure to propagate similar rules, to be repealed.
“For religious people, mercy is not confined to our houses of worship,” Maggie Karner, director of Life and Health Ministries for the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, said at a Feb. 27 event at The Heritage Foundation. “It is not about caring for ourselves. It is about caring for others, those outside the walls of the sanctuary and in the most needful areas of our society.
“But we can only do so,” Karner added, “if we are given the freedom to work within the framework of our beliefs. The anti-conscience mandate does not allow that. It does not allow for the free exercise of our First Amendment rights.”
Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, wrote at the beginning of Lent: “This year, the Catholic Church in the United States is being told she must ‘give up’ her health care institutions, her universities and many of her social service organizations.”
That prospect wouldn’t be a crisis only for the Catholic Church. It would be a huge blow to the millions of Americans served by her institutions, and those of other religious denominations.
The Lutheran relief agency at LCMS, one of the church groups serving thousands in storm-torn states, titles its blog “Mercy Forever.” Neither the HHS mandate nor any other government policy should be allowed to spell the end of that mission.
Jennifer A. Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation.
First moved on the McClatchy Tribune Wire service