I recently had the opportunity to read a stirring challenge to those most opposed to the still-controversial and legally-unsettled HHS mandate requiring all businesses to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees including four abortifacient drugs.
The two prongs of the author’s challenge to these folks are that as Christians, we should be on guard that we do not inadvertently force our religious beliefs on others, and that we should be as concerned with advocating for religious liberty for other groups as we are our own. While these two points are certainly worth remembering, in making his case, the author makes several assumptions that are dubious and at times misleading. Allow me to highlight a selection of these.
First, early on in the article he questions whether institutions such as Catholic hospitals are merely being faithful to their convictions or, more hostilely, imposing their faith on women’s bodies by refusing contraceptives, sterilization, abortions, or other similar services. The problem here is that Catholic hospitals are run by the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church’s position on these issues is pretty well known. Seeking elective services from an institution which you know in advance is not only morally opposed to them, but has never offered them is no ways an imposition on you. If you really want access to such services, find an institution that offers them. Now, this might be inconvenient, but it is no imposition of religion. The much greater imposition comes from the person seeking to force such institutions to knowingly violate their consciences or else be shut down through unjust fines and regulations.
Second, he suggests that businesses which refuse to provide contraceptive- or simply abortifacient-coverage for their employees would be like his refusing, as a religiously motivated vegan (although exactly which religion motivates this is unclear), to pay higher health insurance premiums for those who eat meat on the grounds that he religiously opposes the eating of meat. When pressed, however, this comparison falls apart. First, how would he impose his vegan beliefs on employees? By asking them to not eat meat at work? That seems reasonable enough. By asking them to become a vegan in order to work for him? He would be within his rights to do so, but he probably would have a hard time employing non-vegans, which, I guess, would be a win for him. Furthermore, no less of an authority than the National Cancer Institute has publically stated the normal meat consumption in no way poses a health threat. Thus insurance premiums are not higher for meat eaters than vegans and non-vegans pose no personal economic threat to his beliefs. Second, the relevant employers in the HHS mandate controversy are not imposing their belief that the opposed services are immoral on their employees. The employees are still free to pursue them. An employee of a Catholic hospital is free to use contraceptives. The employers simply are not willing to be the ones writing the check to directly provide them. Once the money is in the employees hands they are free to use it however they want.
Third, he asks if a Muslim employer can demand Sharia compliance by employees. The problem here is that Sharia Law is not merely a set of religious beliefs. It represents an entire political and cultural system that is, at its core, antithetical not only to the U. S. Constitution that guarantees religious liberty, but the very worldview beliefs on which it is based. Muslim employers in this country will never be able to operate fully Sharia-compliant companies because they operate in a nation opposed to Sharia on existential grounds. More to the point, asking employees to wear the symbols of an employer’s religion on their bodies—as would be the case in mandating the wearing of the hijab for female employees—is not a constitutionally protected form of religious expression. A Christian employer could no more force her employees to wear a cross necklace.
Fourth, Christians are usually the first and loudest voices raised when religious liberty is threatened. But, when was the last time you heard about threats to the religious liberty of other groups? San Francisco recently attempted to ban circumcision within the city limits, but after vigorous opposition from Jews and Christians and Muslims, the ballot measure was struck down. The fact is that it is the religious liberty of Christians which is most threatened in this country. The HHS mandate is merely a single example out of many.
Finally, suggesting that the controversy surrounding the HHS mandate is primarily about contraceptives—as the author does at the end of the piece—is to totally miss the point regarding the real issue at play for those of us most opposed to it: how much power should the government have in determining which religious beliefs can be publically pursued and which cannot? How strong is the First Amendment? But, since he raises the issue, his insinuation that access to contraceptives was somehow impaired before the HHS mandate is false. It wasn’t. People simply sometimes had to use their own money to obtain them. There is a very great difference between fighting to keep something legally obtainable and fighting to make sure that the government actively mandates its provision by all employers, including those who morally oppose it. Ultimately the author is correct that we should passionately defend the religious liberty of all religious groups…let’s just start with our own against offenses such as this one.