You’d think Religious Leaders would Protect Religious Freedom

18 Mar

Today a colleague shared with me an email with this headline:

 National Religious Leaders Affirm Access to Birth Controsupreme court picl in Advance of SCOTUS Hearing

 Today, 45  religious leaders of various “nationally recognized” groups released a joint statement supporting universal access to contraception, and affirming that equal access to contraceptives through insurance coverage is a moral good. The statement comes a week before the U.S. Supreme Court hears two cases by private companies to deny  birth control coverage in their employee health insurance, as mandated by the Affordable Care Act.

You can read the full text here:  In the statement they say:

As religious leaders, we support universal access to contraception. We believe that all persons should be free to make personal decisions about their reproductive lives, their health and the health of their families that are informed by their culture, faith tradition, religious beliefs, conscience, and community.  We affirm, in accordance with each of our faith traditions, that ensuring equal access to contraceptives through insurance coverage is a moral good. Including contraceptives as a covered service does not require anyone to use it; excluding contraceptive coverage for those who choose to plan and space their families with modern methods of birth control will effectively translate into coercive childbearing for many.”

Their statement is deeply troubling because it is well-written sophistry that uses religious language to confound the issue.

Basically they are saying that as religious people they deem contraception a positive moral good and any religious person who believes differently is fine to refrain from its use but unjust to deny others access by refusing to pay for it.

There are many problems with this position.  However, rather than attack the inherent immorality of contraception I wonder if it is not better to ask why do we have religious freedom in the first place?

The foremost reason would be that we as a people hold that all  individuals have inherent dignity and rights.  The most fundamental right is the freedom to sincerely seek communion with God in accordance with our conscience and thus to not be coerced to practice anyone’s religion or irreligion.

However, another more pragmatic reason is in response to our experience of Europe’s religious wars.  Recognizing everyone’s freedom of religion by making all possible accommodations (even if inconvenient) to allow religious groups to practice their faith by the dictates of their own conscience enables our nation to function. That is how for the last 238 years we have all been able to get along and collaborate to create prosperity.  For these religious leaders to assert that contraception is a positive moral good and thus the State should force all religious people to pay for other people’s contraception misses the point.  It is not the function of Government, after consulting with some religious groups, to force other religious groups or individuals to do the “right” thing, in violation of their sincerely held moral and religious beliefs.  The State must have a compelling interest in service to the common good  to force people to violate religious beliefs and only do so when another accommodation cannot be made.  (This compelling interest is a check on crazy or at-will beliefs to prevent an abuse of religious freedom e.g.  a claim that crystal meth is a religious ritual. )

So the question should not be “which religion is right?”, but rather, “can the State achieve its objective without forcing anyone to violate his or her conscience?”.  Clearly in the case of contraception the State already ensures the “universal access”  these religious leaders want by requiring Medicaid to cover contraception.  As well, by mandating universal access to “free” contraception won’t that drive up the price for those  who still don’t have insurance, preventing the universal access that these leaders seek?  During the debate for the Affordable Care Act no legislator even mentioned contraception or made the argument that there was not reasonable access to contraception because everyone who wanted it could get it.  So really, the State is forcing people to violate their conscience when there is no compelling need.

As well, if it is wrong to deny contraceptive coverage because if “effectively coerces childbearing”,  why is it not also wrong to actually coerce people to violate their conscience?  By consenting to the HHS mandate these religious leaders are effectively giving the state unfettered power to decide on religious matters.  Like members of the press fervently guard freedom of the press, even the  freedom of those presses they disagree with, these religious leaders should also guard the First amendment.

In a democracy the consensus of the majority can change.  Perhaps today there is a consensus that we should all have to pay for other people’s contraception and these religious leaders have no problem with that.  Perhaps tomorrow there will be a consensus that we should all have to pay for other people’s abortions.  Will not at least some of those religious leaders  want the protection they compromise today?  Or let us suppose, as has happened in other countries, there is a huge growth in the Muslim population and this creates a democratic consensus that we should all have to pay for female circumcision.  While this is a wild speculation and not all Muslim countries have this practice, the point is that we can all conceive of scenarios where we would not want  to have to pay for medical procedures we find abhorrent.  For religious leaders to enable the Government to deprive other religious groups and individuals the right to follow their conscience, simply because they happen to agree with the Government is short sighted and irresponsible.

We in America live in peace because we practice tolerance especially regarding those areas that go to the core of who we are as persons.  For one religious group to collaborate with the State  to deny other religious groups their rights to follow their conscience endangers this peace and endangers religion.  As religious leaders, you’d think they would know better.

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