Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius addressed Georgetown University graduates at an awards ceremony Friday despite opposition from conservative Catholics over her invitation.
Although Sebelius did not directly address the controversy surrounding the birth control mandate she helped craft, she cited John F. Kennedy's famous 1960 speech on the separation of church and state.
"In that talk to Protestant ministers, Kennedy talked about his vision of religion and the public square, and said he believed in an America, and I quote, 'where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials – and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against us all," she recalled.
That "conversation" about the "intersection … of religious freedom with policy decisions" continues, she acknowledged.
Controversy arose earlier this month when it was announced that Sebelius would be delivering the address at a Public Policy Institute awards ceremony. Seen as the key person behind the Obama administration's contraception mandate, which requires religious employers to provide health insurance that covers contraception, sterilization and some abortifacient drugs, many conservatives questioned why she was being allowed to speak at the oldest Catholic and Jesuit university in the country.
The Archdiocese of Washington called the invitation of Sebelius "shocking" and "distressing."
The issue for concern, the archdiocese said Tuesday, was "the selection of a featured speaker whose actions as a public official present the most direct challenge to religious liberty in recent history and the apparent lack of unity with and disregard for the bishops and so many others across the nation who are committed to the defense of freedom of religion."
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According to Politico, there were only about 20 protesters demonstrating against Sebelius' speech. One protester also interrupted the HHS secretary near the beginning of her address with shouts about abortion.
Notably, the graduates expressed their support for Sebelius with two standing ovations – when she walked on to the podium and at the end of her speech.
During her speech, Sebelius talked about the difficulty of making public policy choices and recognized that there will always be disagreements.
"Today, there are serious debates underway about the direction of our country – debates about the size and role of government, about America's role as a global economic and military leader, about the moral and economic imperative of providing health care to all our citizens," she said. "People have deeply-held beliefs on all sides of these discussions, and you, as public policy leaders, will be called on to help move these debates forward.
"Contributing to these debates will require more than just the quantitative skills you have learned at Georgetown. It will also require the ethical skills you have honed – the ability to weigh different views, see issues from other points of view, and in the end, follow your own moral compass."
While Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia stated this week that his invitation to Sebelius should neither be viewed as an endorsement of her views nor as a challenge to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (which officially rejected the birth control mandate for its violation of religious freedom), some have accused the university of deliberately taking sides by inviting a pro-choice Catholic to speak at the ceremony. Robert George, director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, argued that Georgetown had decided to stand against Catholic bishops in the administration's "war" on religion.
"By honoring Secretary Sebelius, they can help to undermine the bishops' credibility and blunt the force of their witness as leaders of the Catholic church. I get it. It's a bold and clever move. Although I find its substance appalling, I can't help but admire its shrewdness," George expressed.
The Cardinal Newman Society, a conservative Catholic organization, also launched a petition highlighting the controversy, called GeorgetownScandal.com.
"It is scandalous and outrageous that America's oldest Catholic and Jesuit university has elected to provide this prestigious platform to a publicly 'pro-choice' Catholic who is most responsible for the Obama administration's effort to restrict the Constitution's first freedom – the right to free exercise of religion – while threatening the survival of many Catholic and other religious colleges and universities, schools, charities, hospitals and other apostolates," a letter on the website, addressed to DeGioia, stated.