Middle Ground in War Over Birth Control

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

The Obama Administration is said to be waging a “war on religious liberty.” To call it war is hyperbole, but there is conflict over a new federal ruling that has antagonized Catholic leaders. One bishop said the administration is telling the church, “To hell with you.”

In January, the Department of Health and Human Services ruled that beginning in August employers who provide employee health insurance — including religious organizations — must cover contraceptive services.

Only one major denomination considers contraception immoral, and that’s the Catholic Church. The church itself is exempt from the HHS rule, but its charities, including Catholic schools and hospitals that serve the general public, would be forced to comply. The network of charities is extensive and highly symbolic given its attachment to the nation’s largest denomination.

Suppose a Catholic hospital employs Liz, a Jewish nurse, for example. If she worked for a secular hospital, she would receive insurance coverage for contraceptives. For others to deny her coverage would be discriminatory, says HHS. But in the Catholic view, contraception is wrong, period, and the church should not be compelled to provide it.

“We’re being told by the U.S. government that unless we only serve a very narrow group of people that are strictly Catholic, we have to comply with something that we feel is evil,” Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami told the Miami Herald this week. “What do I have to do then -– violate my conscience or get out of the insurance business?”

Under the new healthcare law, employers must provide insurance coverage to their employees, and Catholic organizations would face a fine if they dropped their employee insurance plans.

U.S. Sen Marco Rubio of Florida weighs in on the side of the bishops. Last week, he sponsored legislation to repeal the part of the law that requires coverage of contraceptive services.

Catholics have vowed political repercussions if the rule is fully implemented, and Republicans have been stoking the fires, hoping for some election-year fallout.

But according to the Guttmacher Institute, 98 percent of Catholic women practice some form of contraception. It’s unlikely that independent Catholic voters already defying church teaching will be swayed by the HHS ruling. And there’s not going to be a lot of outrage in the general public that Catholic bishops are somehow being denied religious freedom over a mandate to cover birth control.

The government’s job is to protect the interests of all citizens, including non-Catholics, and the ruling speaks up for our hypothetical nurse, Liz.

But the Catholic Church is the oldest Christian faith on the planet, and it did not suddenly decide last month it has objections to contraception. Whether you agree with their convictions – and I do not – it should at least be recognized that this is a long-established moral doctrine, not adopted for convenience.

I am usually uneasy about laws that require people to act against their beliefs. The Obama administration has an obligation to take into account the religious scruples of a church that offers important services to Americans. It should be able to bend the rule a bit. One proposed solution would essentially allow employees to purchase at their own expense an optional rider that would cover contraceptive services.

In fact, Catholic universities and hospitals in many states already offer insurance plans to employees that cover contraceptive services. Some even cover abortion. Presumably employees are paying for these provisions out of their own pockets. This renders some of the apocalyptic rhetoric from Catholic leaders and their allies about the HHS rule rather disingenuous.

It is incumbent on the bishops to recognize diversity of opinions and offer some suggestions about what to do for Liz under the new law. If all they can say to her is “Tough luck,” then they are holding her hostage to their consciences.

This conflict is resolvable, but only by good will on both sides.

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