Attacking Religious Liberty? Churches Aren’t People.

In the last few weeks the issue of religious liberty has exploded nationally.

The spark that lit the flame was the implementation of the Department of Health and Human Services’ rule requiring that all employers include contraceptive services coverage in the health insurance they provide to employees.

While the rule did offer a narrow exemption to houses of worship, it did not extend to religiously affiliated organizations such as hospitals, universities, and social service programs.

These organizations and religious leaders claimed that their religious freedom was being infringed upon. So, the Obama administration made a concession: Instead of requiring religious employers to provide contraceptive services to their employees, the employees would be able to get it directly from the insurance provider. This cut the religious institutions out of the picture, while preserving employees’ access to these services.

Problem solved, right? Unfortunately not.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has promised to fight the Obama administration on the rule—with federal legislation and in the courts. And the bishops seem to have quite a few allies who aim to put the fight in motion.

Several bills have been introduced in the U.S. Senate, including bills by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have both introduced legislation into the Senate that would allow any employer with a so-called religious objection to refuse contraceptive coverage. And Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said last Friday that no insurance policy should cover birth control.

Thursday the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing titled, “Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?” The one-sided hearing offered mostly male witnesses, a majority of who were members of clergy. Democrats—who tried to offer two witnesses on the other side of the issue—were not allowed to do so. (According to the Republicans, the Democrats did not submit qualified witnesses in a timely matter.) Any real discussion about the issue of religious freedom was thwarted, resulting in a one sided “discussion” valuable only for purely political purposes. 

The fact that the USCCB and others are still fighting the rule—even after the change—shows they are more interested in pushing their religious beliefs on others, rather than truly being concerned with preserving their religious liberty as originally claimed.

Real religious freedom allows for individuals to make their own decisions—and what the USCCB and other religious leaders are trying to prevent is a direct affront to that. Prohibiting access to healthcare takes  away the individual’s choice  of conscience and pushes the religious views of the employer on its employees—many of whom don’t even follow the religion of their employer.

The Secular Coalition supported Obama’s shift in policy. While we were not happy that a religious exemption was provided for houses of worship, the ultimate goal of maintaining the individual employees’ rights to make their own moral and religious decisions—instead of being forced to follow the religious dictates of their employers—was maintained.

A New York Times editorial published last week said it best, “Churches are given complete freedom by the Constitution to preach that birth control is immoral, but they have not been given the right to laws that would deprive their followers or employees of the right to disagree with that teaching.” It continued: “If a religious body does not like a public policy that affects its members … it cannot simply opt out of society or claim a special exemption from the law.”
While any house of worship or religion has the right in the United States as guaranteed by the Constitution and the First Amendment to tell its members that contraceptives are unacceptable for followers, it is not acceptable to enlist the government’s help in enforcing such religious doctrine. It is not the government’s job to see that people follow religious edicts.  However, it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that there is no discrimination in the provision of necessary and life-saving services—in this case, contraceptive services.

The USCCB is asking the government to privilege its particular brand of religion over others. After all, we don’t allow followers of Rastafarianism to smoke marijuana just because it’s part of their religion. We don’t provide insurance coverage that will only cover hospitals that segregate men and women for Hassidic Jewish institutions. We don’t allow polygamy because it is part of some sects of Mormon fundamentalism. We don’t make special concessions to see that blood transfusions aren’t provided to organizations affiliated with Jehovah's Witnesses. We don't allow Quakers to opt out of paying taxes if those tax dollars go toward paying for war.

The First Amendment to the Constitution is clear, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion...”  Religious institutions are not above the law or entitled to special treatment.

This is especially true when the organizations in question accept government funding—as so many religious hospitals, charities and universities do. Religious liberty certainly doesn’t give organizations the right to force their views, through taxpayer dollars, on those with different religious views, or to ignore the law.

Let’s call this debate what it is—an attack on women’s right to control their bodies, not an attack on religious liberty. And if that’s the case, it is a debate that religious leaders should be having with their members—the majority of whom use contraceptives—not a debate with the American public at large and not with the U. S. government.

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