post by Bill Gardner
The health insurance reform that was part of the Affordable Care Act requires health insurance plans to pay for prescribed contraceptive services. Some, but not all religious institutions are exempted from this requirement. An exemption means that is they offer their employees health insurance, that health insurance does not need to require coverage of prescribed contraception. Under current rules, churches are exempted, but a church-run hospital or hospital is not. There is currently a dispute about whether the exemption should be broadened to include all church-run institutions.
As a matter of health policy, I support the broadest possible access to contraception. Control over reproductive decision making is a fundamental freedom. However, I agree with the editorialist in the Christian Century, that there was a competing public good that would have justified a broader exemption:
we think the common good is also enhanced when religious believers—and religious institutions—are free to act in the public square without sacrificing their religious identity.
The Catholic Bishop of Charleston, however, takes the stronger view that the failure to broaden the exemption is an assault on
the fundamental right to religious liberty for all citizens of any faith.
This is, I think, an overstatement: I don't think this rises to the level of an assault on a fundamental right and I do not think he is speaking for all US citizens of any faith. Try looking at this from my point of view.
- I am a Buddhist who has taken a number of religious vows, including not killing. If I were an absolute pacificist, which I am not, I could conscientiously object to military service. But I cannot conscientiously refuse to pay any portion of my taxes, even though I am thereby funding killing in wars that have, in my view, no moral justification. Is this an assault on my religious liberty?
- I am absolutely opposed, on religious and ethical grounds, to capital punishments (the graph tracks capital punishments in the US). Nevertheless, they are regularly carried out in my name and paid for with my taxes. Is this an assault on my religious liberty?
- I abstain from eating meat, because it kills animals. However, the US government purchases many tons of meat every day for the armed forces, and hence procures the slaughter of thousands of animals. So again, I am paying for this killing. Is this an assault on my fundamental right to religious liberty?
- Finally, the Catholic Church has historically supported the banning of contraception. Wasn't this religiously-motivated restriction of access an assault on the fundamental right to religious liberty of persons whose religion (or lack thereof) did not bar them from using contraceptives?
The answer to each question is, to some degree, yes: my religious liberty is infringed by points 1-3 and it would have been infringed if there were still restrictions on access to contraception. The government makes me pay for executions. I think that's a more serious assault on my religious liberty than forcing a Catholic hospital to pay for a diaphragm. Where was the Bishop when I needed him?
The thing is, it turns out that if you are a religious person in a religiously diverse society there will always be some important infringements on your liberties.