When the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) handed down a mandate requiring religious employers to cover contraceptive drugs in their health insurance plans, including drugs that cause abortion, Catholic institutions initially took center stage. Cardinal Timothy Dolan explained that the HHS mandate “would force practically all employers, including many religious institutions, to pay for abortion-inducing drugs, sterilizations, and contraception” and warned that the government’s actions “struck at the heart of our fundamental right to religious liberty.”

Indeed, this might-makes-right mandate impacts all people of faith and highlights the need to revisit principles of religious liberty in Scripture.

A Disjointed Body?

The president’s health care law, the Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010, required all employers offering health insurance to include coverage for “preventive health services.” HHS later defined this to include contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs like the morning-after pill (known as “abortifacients”).

Many observers hoped the president would direct HHS to provide a broad exemption for religious employers, and for good reason: In 2009, the president spoke eloquently about the need to “honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion,” and said he was open to “a sensible conscience clause.”

But those hopes were dashed, as we now know. HHS initially exempted only those organizations that employ people of the same faith, serve people of the same faith, and focus on religious teaching as their main mission. Universities, primary and secondary schools, hospitals, nursing homes, food kitchens, and virtually all religious charitable organizations would not receive a conscience-clause exemption from HHS, which explains the firestorm that erupted in January.

Summing up what many thought about the HHS regulation, Dolan concluded that “the exemption is too narrowly defined, because it does not exempt most nonprofit religious employers … who rightly object to paying for abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraception.”

“This is first and foremost a matter of religious liberty for all,” Dolan explained. “If the government can, for example, tell Catholics that they cannot be in the insurance business today without violating their religious convictions, where does it end?” Dolan wasn’t the only religious leader to come to that conclusion.

“I’m not a Catholic, but I stand in 100-percent solidarity with my brothers and sisters to practice their belief against government pressure,” wrote the Rev. Rick Warren. “I’d rather go to jail than cave to a government mandate that violates what God commands us to do,” he added, raising the prospect of a campaign of civil disobedience.

Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention called the HHS mandate “reprehensible.”

Noting that “we are one body,” David French of the American Center for Law and Justice asked his fellow Protestants, “Are we so wedded to our distinctions from our Catholic brothers and sisters that we’ll fail to rally to their aid, much less closely examine our own apparent willingness to quietly cover and fund abortifacients?”

Many faiths and denominations have answered that question. The National Association of Evangelicals, Southern Baptist Convention, Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod), and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America have all condemned the ruling.

Federal lawsuits have been filed by numerous religious employers, including Geneva College (a Pennsylvania college associated with the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America), Louisiana College (a Southern Baptist school), EWTN (a Catholic cable TV network), Belmont Abbey College (a Catholic college in North Carolina), and Colorado Christian University (an interdenominational school).

The Geneva College suit contends that the HHS mandate will “coerce thousands of religious institutions and individuals to engage in acts they consider sinful and immoral, in violation of their most deeply held religious beliefs.”

“As Christians we believe in the sanctity of human life,” Geneva College President Ken Smith explains. “We believe that God knit us together in our mother’s womb. We hold to the requirement of the sixth commandment — you shall not murder — and believe that abortion is murder. … The Health and Human Services Preventive Services mandate coerces Geneva College to violate the sixth commandment under threat of heavy fines and penalties.”

While noting the “breadth of support across many denominations,” including Roman Catholic leaders, Smith expresses disappointment with Protestants who refuse to recognize what the Bible says about the sanctity of life. “I’ve been distressed to discover that many in the body of Christ simply deny the authoritative position of Scripture on the issue of life,” he sighs.

Amid the controversy, some have tried to change the debate’s terms from government infringement upon religious liberty to whether contraception is wrong or right. The HHS mandate is not simply a matter of birth control. It also enfolds abortion-inducing drugs. In fact, implicit in the HHS preventive-services mandate is the notion that pregnancy — and hence, unborn life — is an illness that needs to be prevented.

Reacting to the backlash, the president proposed a compromise that would allow religious employers not to include contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs in their health-insurance plan as long as they make sure their employees have insurance alternatives that provide contraceptives, abortion-inducing drugs, and the like. The White House explained that under the compromise, “insurance companies will be required to provide contraception coverage to these women free of charge.” In addition, the White House established what it described as “a one-year transition period for religious organizations while this policy is being implemented.” As Dolan put it, “In effect, the president is saying we have one year to figure out how to violate our consciences.”

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit law firm, dismissed the compromise as “false,” noting that “For-profit insurance companies aren’t going to donate contraceptives and abortion drugs to employees; the employer will pay for it one way or the other.”

Indeed, health insurers retained by religiously affiliated employers would still be providing these contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs, which could make them culpable in the commission of an immoral act. Moreover, the notion that insurance companies — which, it pays to recall, are businesses — would provide a good or service “free of charge” defies reason. Those charges will be passed back to employers in the annual premiums they pay.

Religious employers are thus faced with four unpalatable alternatives: Ignore the cry of conscience, pay a fine, stop offering health insurance, or engage in civil disobedience by defying the law.

The Kingdom Has Yet to Fully Come

To be sure, there are instances when the government has to intervene to prevent a religious practice from harming someone — and rightly so — but the HHS mandate turns the government’s responsibility-to-protect principle on its head: When it comes to the morning-after pill and other abortion-inducing drugs, the government is intervening to prevent a religious practice from protecting someone — namely an unborn child.

Moreover, the vast majority of the time, the federal government finds a way to protect and preserve minority rights while ensuring majority rule, especially in cases dealing with religious liberty. Mark Rienzi, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, points to “religious exceptions for Quakers who did not want to fight in the military … corrections workers who don’t want to be involved in capital punishment … health-care personnel who do not want to be involved in abortions.”

In other words, America’s government is not supposed to tell those with religious beliefs how, where, when, or whether to practice those beliefs. We don’t have to worship on the same days or in the same ways to recognize this truth.

Speaking of truth, this entire episode serves as a reminder of two timeless truths. First, “our citizenship is in heaven,” as Paul writes in Philippians. We may love our country, but it’s part of a fallen world. Paul reminds us, therefore, that we are Christ’s ambassadors, representing His kingdom, which has yet to fully come.

That was an easy concept to grasp for Paul and the early church, and for all people of faith who have been persecuted by governments. Moments like this — when our government trespasses into the sphere of faith — are the exception rather than the rule in America. Still, they are clarifying moments for people of faith. They remind us that our kingdom, as Jesus explained, is “not of this world.” Smith puts it more matter-of-factly: “At Geneva College, we only have one Lord, and He does not live in Washington, D.C.”

Yet this is our diplomatic posting, to extend Paul’s ambassador metaphor. And the good news for Christians who are blessed to live in America is that we live in a land where people have the right to speak up, to challenge the government, and to follow the call of conscience into the public square. Indeed, the Founders crafted a system whereby faith could impact and influence the government, but not the other way around. Church and state are supposed to coexist in America’s public square. Most Americans don’t want religion to control government (like the Islamic Republic of Iran), and they don’t want government to control religion (like the People’s Republic of China).

The HHS mandate underscores for us that religious liberty is a blessing that should never be taken for granted. If we believe in religious liberty, if we care about it, we should stand up for it.

“When the state stands in opposition to Christ,” as Smith explains, “we must call the state to account.” He believes it’s important for Christians to pray, educate themselves on the HHS mandate issue, and “be actively engaged” by staying in contact with their legislators. “The message should be: This is unacceptable.”

God’s Law or Man’s?

That leads to a second truth unearthed by the HHS mandate mess: Civil disobedience is sometimes justified. But that presents a problem, since disagreeing with the government and engaging in acts of civil disobedience could be seen as violating some of Scripture’s injunctions about respecting government authority.

For instance, in 1 Peter, Peter directs believers to “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.” Paul’s letter to the Romans commands believers to “be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. … Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted. … Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good.”

The obvious implication is that God allows earthly government authorities to be in power for His purposes. It follows that believers should not challenge those authorities. That explains why many people of faith are wary of getting involved in politics, let alone challenging government authority.

However, it may help to put Peter and Paul’s injunctions into some context. First, it’s quite possible that Paul was thinking tactically. In other words, openly rebelling against government authority would have given Rome reason to crack down on the fragile new faith Paul was spreading. By advising the rank-and-file to maintain a low profile, perhaps Paul was hoping Christianity could lay down deep roots and spread peacefully, beneath Rome’s gaze. Why else would he advise Timothy to pray “for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives”?

More importantly, Peter tells believers to “do right,” and Paul’s advice is to “do what is right.” So, if some authority requires a believer to do something wrong — like, say, keeping silent about the gospel, renouncing Christ, or breaking one of the commandments by being complicit in the taking of innocent life — neither Peter nor Paul would instruct that believer to “do what is right” according to a man-made law but wrong according to God’s. That, it seems, would have been self-evident to first-century believers.

Indeed, when ordered by the Sanhedrin not to teach about Jesus, Peter boldly replied, “We must obey God rather than men.” In fact, Peter “never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news.”

Likewise, Paul was jailed and flogged for “advocating customs unlawful for … Romans to accept or practice.” Because of his unflinching commitment to the Word, he triggered riots and was imprisoned by Roman authorities. And yet Paul was encouraged in a vision by Jesus, who told him, “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent.” In short, Peter and Paul engaged in a kind of civil disobedience, and the Lord approved.

Civil Disobedience Approved By God

What’s more, the Bible is full of courageous acts of civil disobedience approved by God.

Pharaoh ordered the midwives Shiphrah and Puah to kill newborn Hebrew boys at birth. “If you see that the baby is a boy,” he coldly commanded, “kill him.” But they explicitly disobeyed Pharaoh’s orders. They even lied about it, and yet God rewarded their act of civil disobedience.

We sometimes forget that Moses’ interaction with Pharaoh was primarily about religious liberty. Speaking as God’s ambassador, Moses declared, “Let my people go so that they may hold a festival to me in the desert.” Pharaoh refused, and so Moses went far beyond civil disobedience. In fact, he led a rebellion against Pharaoh.

The Book of Esther tells us that King Xerxes commanded his subjects to bow before Haman, but “Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor.” That act of civil disobedience set in motion the events that followed: the order to kill all of Mordecai’s people, Esther’s crisis of conscience, Mordecai’s intercession, and Esther’s own courageous act of civil disobedience. It was courageous because, as Esther explained, “for any man or woman who approaches the inner court without being summoned, the king has but one law: that he or she be put to death.” Esther went anyway, and because she did, God’s people were spared.

As any kid who has gone to Sunday school can report, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were tossed into a furnace for refusing to bow to a golden image of King Nebuchadnezzar. Likewise, when King Darius banned the people from praying to anyone except him, Daniel defied the order and prayed to the living God.

Most important of all, when Jesus instructed the disciples to “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21), He was talking about more than taxes. He was also providing guidance on what matters to God: Give to the government what is the government’s, but reserve for God what matters most — your heart, your soul, your conscience. Don’t let the government take hold of those precious parts of you. And don’t be surprised if drawing that line gets the government’s attention. “On account of me,” Jesus proclaimed, “you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them” (Mark 13:9).

That’s what Peter and Paul did, and that’s what Cardinal Dolan, Geneva College, and many other believers are doing today.