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U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. Attribution Some rights reserved by US Mission Geneva.

Reasonable exception

The U.S. Catholic bishops have been assailing the Obama administration for a new rule—starting in 2013—that will require Catholic hospitals and universities to pay for contraceptives as part of their employees' and students' health insurance plans. The Catholic leaders, who are morally opposed to the use of contraceptives, say that the rule infringes on their religious liberty. The bishops have a good point.

In guidelines announced last summer, the Department of Health and Human Services acknowledged the objections of Catholics (and some other religious groups) and exempted religious institutions from the rule requiring health insurers to include contraceptives. The exception included churches, but it did not extend to Catholic-run institutions such as hospitals and universities, which serve a religiously diverse public and employ many non-Catholics. Catholic leaders pressed for an expanded exemption; last month HHS denied the request.

Offering a broader religious exemption is the wiser course. The nation has a long history of carving out religious exemptions to allow religious believers to live out their faith. During times of a military draft, those who have religious objections to serving in the military are generally exempted. Exemptions are also made in the workplace to accommodate religious dress codes. The underlying rationale for such accommodations, as constitutional scholar Douglas Laycock notes, is that religious liberty, to be meaningful, must allow people "to practice their faith, not just believe it."

We disagree with the Catholic bishops' stance on birth control—as do a great many American Catholics—and we think that the common good is enhanced by providing wide access to contraception. Nevertheless, we think the common good is also enhanced when religious believers—and religious institutions—are free to act in the public square without sacrificing their religious identity.

The right to play by one's own religious rules is hardly absolute. The Catholic bishops are mistaken, for example, in charging the HHS with being anti-Catholic because it decided to end funding for a Catholic program helping victims of sexual trafficking. The Catholic program did not provide access to abortion and contraception, and HHS declared that it wanted victims to have "access to information and referrals for the full range of health care services." Given the government's goals, it was both reasonable and legal for HHS to drop the Catholic program. Religious groups have no First Amendment right to receive every government grant they seek.

The claims of religious conscience are not a trump card that wins every argument in American public policy. Nevertheless, the genius of Ameri­can society has been its ability to protect rather than suppress believers' ability to exercise their religion. In the case of contraception and health insurance, there is room for compromise.

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Unreasonable burden

This presentation was placed in the context of "contraceptives" and/or "birth control" but I think the concern unmentioned here for many churchs and believers (Catholic and non-Catholic alike) is the issue this raises for one whose faith seeks to uphold what John Paul called a "Culture of Life."  This is especially the case as HHS's ruling requires these institutions to provide funding for all types of birth controls, including abortion services.

We generally know that our tax dollars go to support some things we may oppose on moral or religious grounds (e.g., military budgets/action, Planned Parenthood, etc.).  But I fear for what this does.  Would we also be shocked to find that the political now trumps the religious, that a political entity may determine the boundaries/essence of acceptable religion, that there is no latitude for conscientious objection or religious exemption, that our own religious institutions and charitable contributions must support the politics of the day, and that our faith and our God is not an issue because someone else has decided it is "immaterial" to the decision.

I applaud the editor for seeing this as a problem.  It's not a political left or right issue, it's a religious freedom issue.  We need to be aware that the political tide can change but if we've dismantled the safeguards, then there are none.

Finally, do we really want to make the Catholics (and the Baptists for that matter) choose between doing the good as they see it or not doing the good as we see it?  What will happen if the Hospitals that run on charity simply close their doors as a witness to HHS victory?  What is the goal in this decision? Who do we win? Who is servced?  Where is the grace?

Just thinking,  Jamey

The examples of reasonable

The examples of reasonable exceptions given, that of religious exemptions to a military draft and latitude in dress codes in workplaces, offer an interesting comparison for the question at hand.  Both are examples of when individual persons are afforded liberties at the expense of corporate or institutional goods.  But, in the case of mandated birth control coverage, institutional liberties are being advances over personal goods. Thus the relevant question is could an adherent to a particular pacifist religion be denied volunteering for the military in a time of war, even if he chose to not adhere to that particular precept of his faith?  Likewise, could a religious institution that promoted head covering demand that all of the women in their organization wear head coverings at work?  As a country, we have traditionally valued the individual's freedom, personal and religious, over the corporations or institutions in which they participate.  I wonder if the claim being made in this editorial not, "institutions are people, my friend."  

I think that a wise distinction was made about what constitutes an exempted religious organization.  Most Catholic hospitals and universities take federal money, private insurance money, and charged fees of non-Catholics to fund these organizations.  Likewise, they hire people that are not adherents to their beliefs.  Thus, it is not the same as if the tithes of the faithful were primarily funding these endeavors, which would change the calculus considerably.  Rather, in participating in broader society, they must be expected to participate in good faith under the rules that govern it.  If they cannot, then I believe the onus is on them to find avenues to achieve their goals faithfully, perhaps Catholic hospitals that do not take private or federal insurance dollars but provide simple nursing care to those in need in the tradition of the houses of hospitality they originated in the Middle Ages.  I hardly think that the Church’s healing mission must be met through taking Medicaid dollars to perform heart catheterizations. 

Broader exemptions beg the greater social issue

While in the case of contraception and health insurance there is room for compromise, we do not believe it is wise to expand an exemption to include religiously affiliated hospitals and universities in addition to churches and other already exempted religious institutions. The public health of young women and their families demands equitable treatment under the law.  We accept there are different viewpoints on this matter. However, please reassure us that the editorial board at The Christian Century Magazine adopting this position was made up by a panel of at least an equal number of women. We want assurance that the editors at Christian Century are not discussing a major women's health issue without women's voices and that the editorial board does not reflect the make-up of either the U.S. Catholic bishops or the first panel gathered by the U.S. Congress when all people of faith should raise the question, "Where are the women?"  

Respectfully, David Smock and Lois Stovall

 

Letter from Glenn Richter

The Century editors were too quick to issue a pass to the Roman Catholic bishops, who cite their principles when refusing to go along with the law of the land regarding health insurance coverage (“Reason­able exception,” Feb. 22). The contraceptive medicines in question are quite accessible, and most women who feel they need them--including Roman Cath­olic women--use them. The limiting factor is financial. The bishops’ campaign undermines society’s effort to make affordable health care available to all. Moreover, isn’t the health-care coverage in question part of employee compensation? Do the bishops feel they can prohibit their employees from spending their cash compensation on things they don’t approve of?

Nothing in the law or regulations forces people to use contraceptives. I would urge the bishops to take advantage of the attention this issue is receiving to make their case as to why they think these medicines are a bad idea. We are learning again and again these days that it just doesn’t work for people in power to force their ideas on others who don’t agree.

Glenn Richter

Perrysburg, Ohio

Letter from John Stopple

The editorial suggesting that Catholic institutions should not have to provide contraceptive coverage in their health insurance plans makes some sense until one thinks about the economics of contraceptive insurance coverage. A health insurance policy that covers reproductive services but not contraception is much more expensive than one that covers both reproductive services and contraception, since policy owners who use contraceptives use much less of the more expensive reproductive services.

If Catholics want to pay more for the right to practice their religion as they see fit, that’s fine. It is not their right to force their beliefs down the throats of non-Catholics and Catholics who disagree with church teachings.

John Stopple

Kirkwood, Mo.

Letter from C. C. Pecknold

The bishops’ objections were never primarily concerned with who paid for the “preventive services.” This was always incidental to the basic objection that the Catholic Church was being coerced into providing its employees with insurance coverage that mandated the provision of drugs which violate deeply held religious principles.

If the Obama administration wants universal coverage and can do so only through the private sector, then it needs to find ways of accommodating, rather than privatizing, religion. Inexplicably narrowing the definition of religion and refusing to provide a conscience clause that will enable the Catholic Church to continue to serve the poor, to educate, and to heal the sick (all biblical mandates) is unconscionable. It is also a crystal-clear violation of the First Amendment, and if it gets that far, the Supreme Court is very likely to agree. 

The Obama administration admirably has the goal of universal health coverage. In England and in Canada this is considered such a great good that it is paid for by the people’s taxes. That is politically untenable in America. But we need not violate our most cherished first principle, religious liberty, in order to make health care in this country work for everyone.

C. C. Pecknold

Washington, D.C.

HHS IS CORRECT

HHS HERE IS CORRECT - USCCB MISGUIDED AND NARROW! THROUGHOUT HISTORY THE POWER OF THE CATHOLIC (CHRISTIAN) CHURCH HAS DONE NOTHING BE HINDER SCIENCE! LEAVE IT THEM WE TODAY WOULD BELIEVE THE "EARTH" THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE!! WHICH SHOULD WE OBEY 'EQUAL TREATMENT OF ALL MEN REGARDLESS OF THEIR BORN INALTERABLE QUALITIES' OR DAMN / EXCLUDE HOMOSEXUALS (SAME SEX MARRIAGE) -- LIKE PLACING A "PINK TRIANGLE" ON THOSE PERSONS ... YOU GET THE POINT! THOSE PERSONS IN THE UNIVERSITIES THAT ARE NOT OF OUR RELIGIOUS PERSUASION SHOULD NOT BE PRECLUDED FROM GETTING THE BENEFIT OF THE HEALTH LAW AS PROVIDED .. THOSE CATHOLICS NEED NOT HAVE THE COVERED MEDICAL PROVISIONS PERFORMED!  FRANK

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