On Religious Freedom
It is a doctrine of the Catholic Church that contraception is immoral. See here. It is a fact that polls show that the majority of Americans do not agree that that teaching. See here. These are inarguable facts at this point. Another fact, perhaps meriting more discussion because it is indeed alterable right now, is that the Congress has passed, the President has signed, and the Supreme Court has upheld something called the Affordable Care For America Act (the “Act”).
The Act, among other things, forces all uninsured Americans to buy into a health insurance system or, if they do not buy in, penalizes them (in the form of a tax pursuant to the Supreme Court’s opinion, found here). The Act also reshapes how the health care system operates in America, and grants tremendous regulating authority to the federal Department of Health and Human Services.
In the mix of changes, the Act requires that all employers must offer contraceptives to their employees under their plan. Here again, there is a wealth of issues: Is this a decision the federal government should be making in a free country—to take the money from some to give contraception to others? And, even if you agree that is a good thing, do contraceptives really need to be offered free where doctor visits or cancer drugs are not? But most importantly, shouldn’t someone have considered mightily the fact that these regulations might violate religious freedom? Shouldn’t they have pondered beforehand that they force large Catholic institutions to provide contraceptives (regardless of whether the employers pays for them directly or indirectly through the carrier) against their longstanding teachings? And whatever else it might be, the Catholic Church’s stance is longstanding, where the beliefs of the societies surrounding it have proven more transient.
To be sure, there are a great many people who believe that their church, whatever church it might be, should behave more like a social club and revise its all of its doctrines whenever they fall into popular disfavor. This instinct is particularly strong in America, where democracy is sacrosanct and anything that resembles voting is held in high esteem. And indeed many churches do in fact merrily conform to the positions society deems popular. The Catholic Church is among those that do not, and in endless ways this instinct to preserve the timeless is a blessing. It does, however, occasionally put the Catholic Church and others with long-held positions it at odds with the sentiment of the day.
With all of this said, besides democracy, there is another instinct hard-wired into the American culture. It is that of religious freedom. While the urge to single out the institutions which seem out of step with the times is strong, the principle of religious freedom, and the freedom of conscience which it protects, has always been at least as strong. Indeed, freedom of religion is the first right protected in the First Amendment of the Constitution. See here. The Bill of Rights, of course, is a list of protections from the federal government. And the primary spot in that document is used for the purpose of protecting religious liberty and its free exercise. That, also, is sacrosanct in the United States.
Seemingly without any consideration for impingement on religion, the Act requires employers (now via their insurance carriers, if they have one) to provide contraception. This includes large employers such as Catholic charities, Catholic universities, Catholic hospitals and Catholic media. A small church that only serves members of its own religion can be exempt, but large institutions that serve people regardless of their religious identification cannot. And to say that the regulations will now require the carriers to pay for it is a distinction without a difference—even if the carrier makes the payment, the entity ultimately pays, and in fact many of these larger Catholic institutions are self-insuring, meaning they will be required to pay directly themselves, in violation of their own beliefs.
This forces those institutions to support acts their faith calls into question, or to face large fines from the government for failing to do so. Many have threatened to simply close, others may be forced by the government to spin off these entities such that they lose their Catholic identity. These are sad prospects, and undemocratic ones. Ultimately, though, the best answer is to stand up to the threat to their beliefs that these regulations amount to.
Moreover, abortifacient drugs, drugs that can induce abortion, are a part of the contraceptives to be covered, which goes far beyond a religious issue to only Catholics, and brings nearly all Judeo-Christian faiths into the debate. See, for example, here about Wheaton College joining in the lawsuit. The issue again is not one’s position on abortion, but rather whether religious employers will have to support what their faith opposes.
And none of this even addresses the fact that the Act is vastly increasing demand for health services. The amount of doctors and health care workers is more or less a constant, and with the threat of making less money in a more highly regulated field, the numbers may even decline. So with more demand for health services, and decreasing supply, at some point someone will have to make decisions about who gets what care. This is called rationing–and the prospect of it raises the questions down the road as to whether panels will have to decide who gets health services. The question of who is too old or sick to get a new hip or a new kidney, who is too sick for a transplant, may seem distant and unrealistic now, but the path starts here and the direction it heads in seems clear. Who, then, will staff these panels? Undoubtedly the government will decide. It is a chilling point, but one that must be considered now.
As a result of all of this, a lawsuit has been brought by over 43 Catholic entities, representing a diverse set of institutions, alleging the regulations under the Act violate principles of religious freedom. See here. The United States Supreme Court’s cases on the topic of religious freedom in recent years are mixed bag and it will be interesting to watch this case unfold. But the violation of religious freedom, and the looming specter of further violations down the road, is the single most important issue, cutting to the heart of the first protection in the Bill of Rights.
The popular media, as disconnected from any principle of objectivity as it is, cites polls splitting Catholics into groups and speculates freely about the rift between those who attend church weekly and those who don’t. They state openly that Catholic bishops are entering the political arena on one side. They say that a new right to free contraception is an important part of women’s health. In other words, they seek in all cases to divide, and thus become a part of the news story they claim to be reporting on.
But these are not the issue, the issue is religious freedom.
Make no mistake, without a change in the regulations, religious institutions will close over this. Religious groups have funded hospitals, social services, universities and charities of all kinds for all of American‘s history, and many will not act against the tenets of their faith as the mandate forces them to do in its present form. They will close down, spin off, or they will take on the punitive fines the law hits them with if they do not comply, until they can no longer afford to do so.
Whether you agree with the Catholic Church’s doctrines is not on the ballot in November. Whether your own faith should change its principles to coincide with those of the current culture is not at issue. Whether or not people want more for free ought not be the principle at stake here.
Instead the foremost protection of the Bill of Rights is in question, and it is in question at a time when the power to protect it—before things get out of hand—is in the people’s hands. The Supreme Court, quite rightly, said the passage of the Act is within the Congress’s power to pass under its taxing power (it has not yet ruled on the freedom of religion aspects). It also quite rightly indicated that it would not pass judgment on whether or not the Act is a good law. That judgment, the right to vote, is in the people’s hands. It should be used, and used on principle to vote against those who put religious freedom into question in this way. It should be used to support those, of either party, who will change or repeal this law.
Then any legitimate debates over religion, health or politics can go freely on, unimpeded in the public square, as the founders intended, and our most precious and fundamental freedom will be preserved.
© Copyright 2012 JD Pierce, Traditium