It’s not about birth control

Published on March 5th, 2012

By Kathleen M. Gallagher

Here’s an op ed column I had published in the Daily Gazette (Schenectady, New York) on Sunday, March 4, 2012. It needed to be said. And it bears repeating.

Health and Human Services rule denies religious freedom; forces moral dilemma, discrimination

Catholic Church teaching regarding contraception has been skewered in recent weeks, following the adoption of a federal rule requiring all employers, including Catholic employers, to purchase contraceptive insurance coverage for their employees. But those who are wielding the skewers — everyone from Carl Strock to MSNBC commentators to Stephen Colbert — are missing the point: This debate is not about birth control.

It’s about religious freedom.

You’ve likely heard about this new requirement, by which the Obama administration is defining some of the fine points of the federal health care reform package enacted two years ago. The new Health and Human Services (HHS) rule compels all employers, including religious employers, to provide birth control, sterilization and abortion-inducing drug coverage to all employees. If they refuse, they face stiff financial penalties.

Now forget about birth control for a moment. Think about pork.

Suppose the federal government suddenly decided that bacon is nutritious and must be a part of Americans’ daily diet. They adopt a rule requiring every elementary school in the nation, including Orthodox Jewish schools, to include bacon in their lunch menus, and every business in the country, including Kosher delicatessens, to serve bacon.

In protesting such a rule, would the Jewish community be skewered for imposing their beliefs on everyone else? Would they be derided because some Jews do eat pork? Scoffed at for being behind the times? I doubt it.

I think the public would understand that the bacon rule fails to respect the fundamental right of religious liberty, a right so significant and so foundational that our founders put it first in the Bill of Rights:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” But the new HHS rule is about sex, not pork, so it’s easy to ridicule and lampoon while missing the point.

The Obama administration’s new HHS rule violates both clauses of the First Amendment. It ignores the establishment clause by including an inadequate religious exemption. In short, the only church organizations that will be shielded from the insurance mandate are those which, among other things, are designed to serve only people of their own faith. Thus a Catholic seminary would be exempt but a Catholic hospital or charitable agency would not.

And there we see the coercive hand of government impermissibly reaching in to define what is and is not religious. Government cannot say that Catholic health care institutions, schools and universities, foster care homes, mental health agencies and soup kitchens are not engaged in a religious mission! For them, Catholic social teaching demands that they serve people of all faiths, races, genders and socioeconomic backgrounds.

They turn no one away and offer compassion and healing to all. That’s not a government mandate, that’s a Gospel mandate.

The White House also ignored the free exercise clause by compelling religious people and organizations to pay for things they consider immoral, and thus violate their church’s teachings, under threat of heavy penalties. Religious insurers will be forced to write policies, religious organizations will be required to purchase coverage, and people of conscience will be forced to pay for it through their premiums. That’s deeply offensive, unnecessary, dangerous and just plain bad law.

We here in New York are not unfamiliar with such outrageous and hurtful discriminatory actions. In 2002 state lawmakers passed a similar contraceptive insurance mandate, with a similarly inadequate religious exemption. Since that time, dioceses and church agencies have struggled to serve the underserved while remaining true to their ethical principles.

Both Catholic and non-Catholic agencies brought suit against the state over the mandate, fighting it all the way to the highest court, but ultimately losing the battle. Some church entities were forced to redesign their insurance programs and move to a self-insurance model in order to escape the state-imposed requirement.

But this is worse; this is inescapable. In New York, there never was a legal obligation for any employer to provide health insurance coverage.

Federal health care reform changed that. Now there is a mandate, and there are no avenues of relief.

So you see, the percentage of American women currently using the pill is completely irrelevant. The effectiveness rates of various methods of contraception are even more immaterial to this discussion.

And it makes no difference if the birth control is free or if there are co-pays. What matters is upholding and ensuring the fundamental right to religious freedom.

That’s what the Catholic Church is fighting for.

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