Street Corner Soapbox: Contraception and the President

Thursday, February 16th, 2012 at 9:14 AM
Street Corner Soapbox: Contraception and the President by Jay Stevens

Last week, religious leaders -- especially the US Congress of Catholic Bishops -- were furious that the Obama administration wasn't extending its religious exemption on a health care rule that employee insurance must cover contraceptives to religiously-affiliated organizations like hospitals and universities. Critics called the payment for contraceptive services a violation of religious freedom, despite the fact the rule in no way interferes with the preaching or exercise of Catholic doctrine. Priests can still preach against contraceptives and parishioners can still refuse to use them.

The criticism also ignored the fact that "religious believers and institutions are not entitled to an exemption from generally applicable laws," according to UCLA law professor Adam Winkler in a interview. Winkler cited the Supreme Court decision, Employment Division v. Smith, which found that states could deny unemployment to people fired for religious activities that are illegal -- in this case, two Oregon men fired for consuming peyote, a drug associated with Native American religious ceremony. “To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land," wrote the conservative Catholic justice for the majority, "and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”

Imagine, if you will, Muslim-affiliated businesses enforcing Sharia law over its employees, or Christian Science-affiliated businesses denying all health care coverage for their employees, and you get the idea of what it means for Catholics Bishops to lobby to enforce its view on contraceptives on the employees of Catholic-affiliated institutions.

In short, the Obama administration had no compelling legal reason to change its rule. But it did. It reached an agreement with insurers. Religious-affiliated organizations have the right to refuse to pay for contraceptive coverage, which insurers will then provide for free to employees. Why? Because it's cheaper than not to provide the coverage.

Furious, Catholic leaders decried the compromise, and Republicans quickly took up the banner of "religious freedom." Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed to pass a law allowing any employer to be able to deny coverage for contraceptives to its employees, and suddenly the issue became plain as day. It wasn't about employers having to pay for contraceptives, it's about employers not being able to force their employees to adhere to conservative Christian doctrine.

Pundits are now falling over themselves divining electoral meaning from the debate. Conservatives gleefully claim that Obama has now gotten himself entangled with the Catholic church and see dire consequences. Liberals rush to proclaim the whole thing a trap set by the canny: not only do a majority of Americans favor the administration's contraceptives rule, so do a majority of Catholics. And if Republican Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins are any indication, it's likely a large proportion of women conservatives do, too. The issue, then, is a handy wedge to slice large portions of the independent vote to the president -- particularly women voters, the vast majority of those in their childbearing years are taking contraceptives, some 65 percent, according to a 2010 Guttmacher Institute study.

And that's what's being lost in the claims for "religious freedom," isn't it? While Catholics claim the rule puts the government between them and their God, they advocate putting their church between women and their doctors.

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