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SaraKay Smullens

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Chief Justice Robert's Health Care Decision: A Moral Perspective

Posted: 07/03/2012 2:24 pm

Victoria Kennedy, the widow of the late Ted Kennedy, has confirmed that when the Supreme Court upheld the president's overhaul of our nation's health coverage she received a telephone call from Nancy Pelosi, who told her that her husband can now rest in peace.

No doubt Pelosi, Kennedy and the president, like the rest of us, were shocked that the vote was carried by Chief Justice Roberts. His legal justification of this decision, a defined tax rather than penalty, will be discussed by legal experts for years to come. But for now, there is wonder: Does this decision set a precedent that the federal government can tax as it wishes? And what, if anything, does this tell us about Robert's further decisions on matters such as affirmative action, racial prejudice and gay marriage? Time will tell.

But this is clear: Some angry that President Obama did not insist on a single payer system and furious at his compromises, now see the path toward full coverage as a process, and the president's leadership in a new and favored light. And others, such as Glen Beck, are defining the Chief Justice as a coward, with T-shirts as documentation.

But in the exhausting examination, reflection and surprise in this news, one point is being overlooked. Roberts (like Pelosi and the Kennedys) is Catholic, and the very best of Catholic ideals hold enormous compassion for those who suffer. (Yes, there are other Catholics on the Court who voted against this bill, but the Court does not bear their name.) It is this essence of the Church which is so deeply embedded in Ted Kennedy that he described Universal Health Care as the cause of his life; a right, not a privilege; a moral issue that defines the character of who we are as a country.

Although I am not Catholic, I have been privileged to see this best of the Church up very close. A graduate of Goucher College, in Baltimore, where I majored in political science, my first job following graduation was at the DNC, with special assignments at the White House. From an Orthodox Jewish family, in my wildest dreams I never expected to begin my graduate work, with full scholarship as well as a very modest living allowance (that seemed like a fortune at the time), at D.C.'s National Catholic School of Social Service. But with President Kennedy's urging, that is precisely where I found myself.

At Catholic U, all of my teachers were either devout Catholics or priests, whose empathy and compassion for the poor and helpless was inspirational. Plus in all of my classes there was absolute freedom of speech and idea exchange. Abortion was then not a public issue, and, in truth, not on my mind; but my belief in the necessity of birth control was respected, though not agreed with. And I never feared expressing my opinions. Actually, the values stressed by all of my teachers was in concert with the importance of tzedakah (the commandment to give), the ethical and moral foundation of Jewish life stressed by my beloved childhood rabbi, Dr. Uri Miller.

In years following, when picketing and marching for abortion rights, the sign I always made read "Pro-Choice is Pro-Life." Catholics present, though in obvious opposition these views, were always courteous to all present. They had signs; they prayed; but they never blocked entrances or showed disrespectful or dangerous behavior.

In 1995, the newly formed Philadelphia Sabbath of Domestic Peace interfaith coalition, composed of professionals and volunteers dedicated to the elimination of violence within the family, identified clergy education and involvement with those abused and their families as "the missing link" in addressing the epidemic of domestic abuse. We stressed that powerful abusers within a religion community must be stopped; that when abuse was taking place couples could not be seen together; and that prayer alone cannot stop an abuser. This initial effort was under the sponsorship of the Philadelphia District Attorney's office, under D.A. Lynne Abraham, and the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Jewish Congress. Each of the city's major religions joined in a decade of education and continuous effort to stop spousal abuse, largely because of persistent work and support of two extraordinary nuns, Sister Josephine Kase and the late Sister Marion Dillon. Today most Philadelphia faith communities and houses of worship address this challenge independently.

I believe it is this conscience, the respect for those in need, surely a part of Justice Robert's formative years, that was reflected in his health care analysis. He has been taught to care about children and adults with preexisting conditions, that donut hole that robs seniors of their meds, and the preventive screenings that can help ensure quality care for all.

Further, he did not want the Court that will ever be defined by his name to be seen as the Citizens United Court, one that only protects the rich and powerful, regardless of costs to the public good. A brilliant jurist, he found legal justification to express this morality. Pelosi may be right that Ted Kennedy can now rest in peace; but something else is also true: Chief Justice Roberts will sleep better right here on earth.

 

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