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The Rev. Laurena Will, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Ogdensburg.
The Rev. Laurena Will, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Ogdensburg.

Pastor sees personal choice threatened in health coverage debate

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Yesterday we began a conversation about social issues that are in play during this election year, ranging from contraception to prenatal testing to the role of religion in politics and public life. Catholic bishops across the country are working to defeat laws requiring that insurance coverage provided by religious groups include services like contraception and vasectomies.

Polls show that the vast majority of American families, including Catholics to use contraception. But in a conversation with Brian Mann yesterday, Bishop Terry LaValley of Ogdensburg said the church's opposition to contraception is firm.

"Because it's a fundamental teaching of our faith. It's a question of life, of the preservation of life."

LaValley said requiring faith groups to offer insurance coverage for services like contraception and vasectomies amounts to "an attack on religious freedom."

The Rev. Laurena Will has been pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Ogdensburg for seven years, and an ordained minister for 20. Her church owns the building that houses the Ogdensburg Planned Parenthood Clinic. Martha Foley spoke with her yesterday. Will sees the insurance mandate and the religious freedom issue that rises from it; from a very different perspective.

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Martha Foley
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Foley: "Thanks very much for coming in this morning I appreciate your visit here and the time you're going to give us. As a leader of another mainline American church how do you see your role in this public debate?"

Will: "The church doesn't take a, it doesn't tell our people what they should think about this issue. The Presbyterian Church believes that God alone is lord of the conscience; therefore each person has a personal relationship with God. There are some things scripturally that we can learn, and taken in time and context [of] history, but actually on this issue scripture is silent because this is an issue that wasn't present in the time of the writing of the scripture."

Foley: "In our conversation yesterday Bishop LaValley frames this issue particularly about this health insurance mandate as one of purely religious freedom, under the first amendment, not a health issue, not an issue between employer and employee to be settled by public policy. It sounds like you see this just completely differently."

Will: "I do, I think I do. It is a religious freedom issue. If I am practicing my faith as I see it I can opt not to participate in something, but if something is not offered and not provided then my employer is already telling me that I must opt out. So to me it is religious freedom, but it is the freedom to choose whether you are participating in having birth control or not having birth control, and that's a personal choice."

Foley: "So it sort of gets down to, who gets to exercise this first amendment protected freedom the individual or the denomination. Are there choices defined by the Presbyterian Church as this is by the Catholic Church?"

Will: "We try not to dictate theology in the Presbyterian Church, we don't legislate theology is maybe a better way of saying that. We do have a book of order that we follow and we do have, yes to be Presbyterian you must be Christian, it is a Christian faith, follow the teachings of Christ. It's through the guidance of reading scripture and studying, but it's also understanding God's presence in our lives at this very moment."

Foley: "How do we sort out the separation between church and state when you have such different interpretations of this area of religious freedom and also when churches are involved in human services that are funded by the government and as you say involving people that are outside the denomination? Do we have separation of church and state under those circumstances?"

Will: "I'm very concerned that we don't have separation of church and state. i think there is an understanding that we have in this country that there is separation of church and state. It’s been taught forever. I was not allowed to pray at graduation when school asked me to pray at graduation because of that separation of church and state. and I think there's great value in it, and that value would be that this is a country that welcomes people from many different faith traditions, and if you don't have that separation then you run into the issues we are having now where the church and the government are blurred."

Foley: "I think I'm right in saying that the mainline protestant churches were instrumental in spearheading access to contraception and family planning, is that right?"

Will: "That's correct; women parishioners were going to their pastors and needing help. They needed reproductive health; they were struggling with their own health."

Foley: "When was this?"

Will: "I'm going to say fifty, sixty years ago. So clergy got together and were very instrumental in starting Planned Parenthood, for the reasons of birth control and women's health. So it was a pastoral issue, pastors were trying to find ways to help the women in their congregations."

Foley: "You're on the board of Planned Parenthood and Ogdensburg Presbyterian owns the building that houses the Planned Parenthood clinic. Why doesn't that cross the line between church and state?"

Will: "For me that doesn't cross the line at all. I don’t see the caring for others are crossing the line I guess should be where I am with that. The issue for me and I believe for the church would be that it's helping lower socio=economic women and the issue is to help women get healthcare that need it."

Foley: "If you were on an appointed commission, a task-force, to separate the two again how would you see this working?"

Will: "I think it's very hard, I think it's like putting the toothpaste back in the tube."

Foley: "I sympathize with the Bishop's strongly held argument that this is a fundamental of their faith."

Will: "And the problem when we're passionate about our faith is that a lot of times we believe that our faith is teaching us to go out and make everybody else believe like we do because we think that is what we are called to do. Christ says to go out and make disciples of all nations and so we take that to mean that we should make others believe like we do, so we do fight in the government level to try and help others learn the good faith whatever we think that is and whatever we believe that to be. But what we've forgotten is that God is bigger. God is bigger than any one faith, God is huge. And it doesn't necessarily slight our faith to have there be others. I do think we can learn and grow of god by listening to one another but we don't get to decide for everyone."

Foley: "Thank you so much for your time today."

Will: "You're welcome. My pleasure."

Laurena Will is pastor of the Ogdensburg Presbyterian church. You can hear Brian Mann's conversation yesterday with Bishop Terry LaValley of the Ogdensburg Diocese at

Tomorrow during the Eight O'Clock Hour we'll continue our series with one Roman Catholic woman in the North Country who is trying to balance her life as a college student with the moral teachings of her church.

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