President Obama recently agreed to a Health and Human Services ruling which says that under the new Health Care Act, Catholic institutions—including charities, hospitals and schools—will be required by law to provide and pay for insurance coverage (for their employees) that includes contraceptives, abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization procedures. If they fail to do so, they will face heavy fines. Many Catholic Bishops and others are objecting to this law as an infringement of First Amendment, Freedom of Religion rights, and in certain quarters, as evidence of a “war on religion”. Many liberals (not all) are saying that what this does is protect and promote women’s health, and prevent the Catholic Church from imposing its will on non-Catholics.
First, let’s be clear about what the ruling does and doesn’t say. It does not say that Catholic Hospitals will be required to perform abortions, or that a Catholic doctor will be required to prescribe contraceptives, or any similar impositions. What it does say is that institutions with ties to the Catholic Church (but not a Church itself) – such as hospitals, colleges, and charitable agencies – that employ non-Catholics as well as Catholics, and that accept federal or state funds, must follow the same rules as other organizations when it comes to providing health care benefits for their employees. In other words, if a non-Catholic person (or for that matter, a Catholic person who does not agree with the anti-contraceptive beliefs of the Catholic Church) were to get a job at a Catholic Hospital as a secretary, or an orderly, or a surgeon, or a ticket-taker in the garage, and that person wanted to go to their physician (not the Catholic hospital itself) and get a prescription for birth control pills, and then went to their local pharmacy to pick up the prescription, their insurance policy – like insurance policies everywhere else – would cover the cost.
Now there is an issue here, a legitimate issue, but let’s look at it without raving about ‘wars on religion’, or ‘wars on Catholics’, or ‘the end of religious freedom in America’, or other sensationalism and negative rabble-rousing.
The issue is this: If we grant special privileges to Churches, Synagogues, Mosques, etc,(which I believe is perfectly Constitutional and perfectly fine), the question arises about whether other organizations or businesses that are somehow related to the religious institution are also entitled to these same special privileges (i.e., regarding taxes, complying with laws and regulations, etc.).
Now there are obvious answers here when the related-organization is very close to, or very far from, the institution itself. For instance, a Sunday School in the basement of a Church is not a ‘Church’, it’s an educational activity – but clearly, this is a close enough association with the Church that I doubt anyone would seriously advocate for refusing it the same privileges as the Church itself. At the other extreme, there may be a drugstore in town which is often visited by Catholic members of the Church, but I doubt anyone would seriously advocate that the presence of Catholic customers means that the store should not be allowed to sell condoms. These are obvious and simple extremes: What about this situation which is somewhere in between?
The question here is whether the institutions covered by this regulation – Catholic Hospitals, Schools, Colleges, Charitable Agencies, etc. – are far enough removed from the Church itself as to be distinct, or so tightly connected as to be a virtual part of the Church. It has usually been assumed that such groups are entitled to the same privileges as a Church. But this historical precedent, while carrying weight, is not necessarily correct. There have always been arguments to the contrary. Laws and rules evolve, and must evolve as technology and society evolve, so this precedent should be considered but not deemed conclusive. There is also the issue of whether these organizations, by accepting government funds, are self-defining themselves as public, rather than religious, endeavors. So, in legal terms, the issue comes down to this: is the regulation, including its exemptions, crafted too narrowly?
I believe this is a fair question. People of good will are on both sides. I am sick to death of hearing all the name-calling and nasty personal accusations that are made when people disagree (whether on this issue or so many others). Frankly, I’m not yet sure where I stand on this, I’m very interested in hearing intelligent opposing arguments, and I’m looking forward to hearing a carefully considered and soundly reasoned opinion from the courts (I’m fairly sure this will get there). In the meantime, I find myself partly persuaded by sentiments of despair about government bureaucracy overly imposing itself, and many considerations of freedom of religion. But I’m also partly persuaded by arguments for fairness and equality in our treatment of employees, and by issues of women’s rights and health.
And I do think it worth remembering, when politicians or others claim that this is a unique case in our history that proves the Administration is conducting a ‘war on Catholics’ or other such drivel, that despite their religious consciences Mormons are not allowed to engage in polygamy, Christian Scientists are not allowed to deny medical attention to their dying children, Quakers are not allowed to deduct taxes that might go toward warfare, Rastafarians are not allowed to use illegal drugs in their religious ceremonies, and Atheists are not allowed to deduct from their taxes monies that might be used to help fund a Catholic hospital. Freedom to hold one’s own religious beliefs and convictions – which comes from the second clause of the First Amendment – has always been balanced by restrictions against imposing one’s beliefs on others – which comes from the first clause of that same First Amendment. Achieving this balance is a difficult and fascinating proposition that must be pursued intelligently and certainly can be pursued civilly.
What are your views?
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