The Obama administration’s recent HHS health care decision mandates that all employers cover birth control prescriptions through their employee health care plans. Since the Catholic Church opposes artificial birth control, exemptions are allowed for churches, since they serve a directly religious function, but exemptions don’t apply to Catholic run hospitals, universities, or charities, since they serve the general public.
To a Catholic, and I speak as one, feeding the hungry and healing the sick are religious actions, in many ways just as much as praying and worshipping are. The Catholic Church has been running hospitals and soup kitchens since long before the United States became a nation. Heck, the Church practically invented the modern university system. To many Catholics, it comes across as condescending for the government to haughtily say “you have to follow our rules for the privilege of helping society,” as if the government could easily step in and do all that charity work. When the Obama administration created its exemptions, it was as if it was telling Catholics which of its activities are religious and which are secular, a distinction no true believer would hold, but, paradoxically, a distinction that religious freedom depends on. If this fight reaches the Supreme Court, there’s a precedent already set in the 1990 case Employment Division vs. Smith, and the bishops won’t be happy if it’s followed.
Alfred Smith and Galen Black, two drug counselors at a private Oregon firm, were fired and denied unemployment benefits for smoking peyote, an illegal substance. They sued on grounds of religious discrimination, since smoking peyote is part of their Native American religious ritual. The case made it to the Supreme Court, which ruled against Smith and Black, stating that since peyote is illegal for everyone, it doesn’t count as a particular infringement upon Smith and Black’s religious freedom. In the words of Justice Antonin Scalia, a Papist no less, “To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”
I suppose one could contrast the Supreme Court’s action in Smith with Obama’s HHS decision, slyly pointing out how in the former government restricts religious freedom by banning one drug (peyote) while in the later government curbs religious freedom by requiring the distribution of another drug (birth control). But such an argument would miss the major point that the necessary price of religious freedom is religious impotence. That is, if religious freedom is to have any meaning at all, it must have a government strong enough to defend it. But, paradoxically, that government can only be strong if it has the power to enforce laws that citizens may not opt out of on religious whims. There must be a necessarily, and often, arbitrary distinction between religious belief, always permitted, and religious action, permitted only insofar as it accords with secular law, otherwise the church would rise up and become the state, and we’d be back in Christendom.
The religious freedom debate hasn’t gotten any clearer since John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration in 1689. Locke tried to partition off certain roles to church and state, to the church “the care of men’s souls” and to the state “outward things such as money, land, houses, furniture, and the like.” Implied in this separation is that religion is an internal or private thing, apart from the realities of public life. This works if you’re a Reform Jew, a liberal protestant or, better yet, a Unitarian-Universalist. But for those whose faith compels them to transform society, life in the secular state will always be an uneasy marriage.
Yes, the state can, and does, make concessions, like with the Amish, who need not attend school through age sixteen. With matters of public health, though, it’s a lot harder to justify a religious exemption when it means that poor women will be denied medicine. It’d be easier justifying an exemption for Native American peyote rituals.
Yet, without even touching upon the issue of religious freedom, our government could easily avoid conflicts like the Smith case and the HHS ruling. It could avoid ruining Native American prayer services by decriminalizing recreational drugs, because it’s a waste of taxpayer money, and a moral cruelty, to arrest and lock away non-violent drug users. And Catholic groups wouldn’t be put in the position of having to cover birth control if the United States instituted universal healthcare, like all the other first world nations, because it is a sin that in a nation as wealthy as ours people have to depend on the benevolence of their employer for health insurance.