Freedom — and four fallacies
Think what you wish of President Barack Obama’s attempt Friday to end a fierce skirmish over insurance coverage of drugs that prevent conceptions and induce abortions.
The president said he would guarantee that coverage, without cost to female recipients. Under his modified mandate, he said, “religious organizations won’t have to pay for these services, and no religious institution will have to provide these services directly.” It’s the “directly” — and the persistent distinction between “religious organizations” and “religious institutions” — that’s sure to keep this controversy aflame.
In Obama’s scenario, that is, religiously affiliated institutions such as schools, hospitals or charities would supply insurance for their workers’ other health services; employees who also want contraceptives would get them from the insurers. What’s unclear is who actually pays for the drugs — the insurers or the employers? If insurers simply divert money from health premiums paid by the religious institutions to cover contraceptive costs, then employers who have religious objections to buying these drugs will end up footing the bill. We’ll all learn, as more details come forward, whether this new directive is a full recognition of religious rights, or a shell game.
Our previously stated opinion, offered Feb. 3, hasn’t changed: The Obama administration, by not providing a broad conscience exemption for this insurance mandate, is denying Roman Catholic and other religions their right — the first right enumerated in the First Amendment — to freely live by their faith.
This is, though, a useful debate: Mandated contraception coverage is but the latest twist in an endless American discussion about religious freedom. In the course of this debate, though, the White House and some proponents of compulsory coverage have relied on four fallacies that ought to give all of us pause — not only in this instance, but in the next, and in all that come after that:
Even Catholics say … : While leaders of many faiths have objected to any contraceptive coverage mandate, no one has spoken more vociferously than the U.S. Conference of Catholics Bishops. Last week, though, The New York Times reported that a majority of Catholics favor the contraceptive mandate, according to “recent polls which Obama officials were pointing to on Tuesday … ” Problem already. What a majority of self-described Catholics (or Presbyterians or Sunni Muslims) thinks is of great importance to discussions, maybe disagreements, within each faith. But disagreement within the faith doesn’t abrogate the constitutional right to practice that faith free of government interference.
Public opinion polls find … : Planned Parenthood and other supporters of a mandate pointed last week to broader polling results showing that a majority of all Americans, not just Catholics, agree with mandated coverage. That’s good to know. But to the extent this argument suggests that public opinion should dictate government policy in matters of conscience, no other questions asked, then this is perilous turf. Example: Should opponents of capital punishment surrender their objections because, in the most recent polling reported on its website, Gallup finds that Americans continue to favor the death penalty, 61 percent to 35 percent?
We offered a grace period: White House spokesman Jay Carney, among others, has noted that the original mandate included a one-year enforcement delay. The stated intent was to give religiously affiliated employers time to adjust. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York puzzled over that delay — “as if we might suddenly be more willing to violate our consciences 12 months from now.” If any government action is an affront to a constitutional right, waiting a year to implement its enforcement doesn’t make it any less objectionable.
If you keep to yourselves, you’re exempt: Obama’s continuation Friday to distinguish between “religious organizations” and “religious institutions” suggests that he still sees the latter as different, because they serve many people of other faiths, or of no faith. By that reckoning, the University of Notre Dame isn’t exempted from a mandate that might exempt, say, the offices of Chicago’s archdiocese. The head of Catholic Charities USA wryly observed early on that Jesus and his apostles wouldn’t get an exemption from the Obama mandate, because they ministered to people of other faiths. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations objects that the White House position essentially is that “if a religious entity is not insular, but engaged with broader society, it loses its ‘religious’ character and liberties. … The administration’s ruling makes the price of such an outward approach the violation of an organization’s religious principles.” Like the grace period, the administration’s reluctance to offer a blanket exemption doesn’t relieve believers from what they see as a collision of legal directive and religious belief.
We don’t yet know every detail of the Obama administration’s evolving policies on contraception. We do, though, take seriously the concerns — from the Constitution forward — that religious freedom is a frail thing, easily abused or neglected. Given that American heritage, the White House may have a difficult time establishing in federal courts that the policy separation of religious organizations and religious institutions is anything more than a distinction without a difference.
The right thing for President Obama to do is to exempt from his rules any entity that would be forced to contravene its religious teachings and beliefs. The president needs to consult what should be, in this and future similar disputes, our nation’s guiding principle:
Make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
Sound familiar? Many people gave their lives to protect those words — especially the unequivocal “no.”