The Catholic Church claims that President Obama’s decision to require health insurance plans to include contraception violates its First Amendment right to freedom of religion.
What Freedom of Religion Means
This claim rests a mistaken understanding of that freedom. The freedom of religion clause protects our right to practice our own religion. That means the government cannot enact laws that aim at interfering with religious beliefs or practices. But the First Amendment has never been understood to grant us a general exemption from legislation that aims at a legitimate secular purpose even if it conflicts with our religion.
Congress and state legislatures have granted institutions that perform religious services and teach religious doctrine limited exemptions from general laws. A church may give preference to members of its own denomination in hiring, even for non-clerical positions. Recently the Supreme Court ruled that the Americans with Disability Act does not apply to church employee who carry out a ministerial function.
But institutions supported by Churches that serve the general public and that hire employees from all religions, such as universities and hospitals, have never been exempt from general laws that protect their employees or clients. They are not allowed to discriminate in hiring and they follow wage and hour laws.
These church-supported institutions justify support from federal and state governments because they claim to be providing fundamentally secular aims: health care and higher education. They can’t, at the same time, claim to be religious organizations for the sake of receiving an exemption from general laws that protect their employees.
The Department of Health and Human Services, following the recommendation of a non-partisan medical organization, ruled that contraception is a preventive health care that should be covered free of charge by all employer provided health insurance plans. This rule follows the standard practice: Churches and related institutions that primarily aim at teaching and practicing religion are exempt from it. Church supported institutions that have a general purpose, such as universities and hospitals, are not.
Paying for insurance that includes contraception and freedom of religion
The Catholic hierarchy claims that the rule violates freedom of religion because it forces the Church to pay for insurance that provides contraceptives. This claim is triply misleading.
First, employers do not give employees health insurance out of charitable motives. They give health insurance as a form of compensation. Health insurance is thus not ultimately paid by the employer but by the employee who forgoes wages in order to take compensation as insurance.
So if anyone should object, it is Catholic employees who ultimately pay a portion of the insurance. But Catholic laity could hardly object since surveys show that 98% of Catholic women who are sexually active use contraception.
Second, health insurance that covers contraception generally does not cost more than health insurance that excludes it, because the cost of contraception is much less than that of pregnancy, delivery, and care for newborns.
And third, it is a huge stretch to say that one is being forced to violate one’s religious principles because one pays into a health insurance pool that covers a medical procedure other use and to which one has religious objections. After all, employee provided health care is tax exempt, so in effect every one of us provides a subsidy for health insurance plans that cover contraception. No religion has ever held its adherents morally culpable for the distant effects of their insurance premiums or tax payments. A Church that is demanding government vouchers to pay for religious instruction that is anathema to many taxpayers has no grounds to make such a claim.
The Church’s stand is not just dubious but newly invented. Many Catholic universities and hospitals, including the Jesuit University of Scranton and Boston College, already provide insurance covering contraception because they are in one of the 28 states that require it. The Catholic Church has never raised the objection to these rules that it now raises to the Affordable Care Act.
So, what is really going on?
So what is really going on? Philadelphia Archbishop Chaput’s statement opposing the new rules implies that the Church had previously supported the Obama administration. That’s not true. The ACA will save 20,000 lives a year and reduce the suffering of hundreds of thousands by providing health insurance to over 30 million who do not have it now. Yet the Conference of Catholic Bishops opposed the law over a technical issue concerning abortion funding. Many Catholic legislators still voted for the law because the ACA does not use government funds to provide insurance that covers abortion.
So at base, the uproar over the new rules requiring contraception in health insurance policies looks less like a plausible demand for religious freedom and more like the latest move in the Church’s ongoing fight against the Affordable Care Act and the Obama administration