Government Cannot Dictate Private Beliefs


Making conception available as standard healthcare is sound medical and public policy; let individuals decide whether to use it.

It's an election year, so of course it's time to draw lines in the culture wars. This, however, should not be a controversial.

  • Most Americans regard contraception as a standard medical practice.
  • Reflecting this mainstream view, a new federal rule requires employers who have healthcare plans to provide contraception and birth control services.
  • Churches are exempt from this requirement.

So far, so good.

But the Catholic Church and its Republican allies want to carve out a broader exception to the religious exemption, to include a host of institutions operated by churches: charities, service agencies, hospitals, and schools. These institutions employ hundreds of thousands of people. Some are self-selected members of the faithful. However, many are not members of the employing church and do not subscribe to its doctrines.

[Majority of Catholics Believe Employers Should Cover Birth Control.]

First Amendment arguments thus do not apply here. No one is telling the Catholic Church that it cannot hold its views on contraception. For that matter, no one is telling the church that it must provide contraceptive services to church employees. The guidelines mean only that employers must make standard medical services available to employees who work for institutions that do not have strictly sectarian goals. The reach of the state still stops at the gates of the church.

What House Speaker John Boehner and the Catholic bishops argue is that the church ought to be able to overstep that gate to impose its doctrines on everyone who teaches in its schools, works in its hospitals, or drives its buses. Public opinion polls suggest that a majority of Americans will view this as unfair.

Such arguments open the door to unreasonable inference by the religious authorities in non-religious realms of employment and medicine. And contraception isn't the only place where conscience and medicine might clash. Think about it. By extension, the conscience clause could allow some church-owned schools or agencies to exclude blood transfusions or organ transplants from medical coverage—or even to supply religious counseling in lieu of emergency medical services. And what if creationist beliefs were rigorously applied to healthcare plans? Since the annual updating of the flu shot reflects scientific ideas about evolution, perhaps some evangelical churches might wish to exclude such vaccinations from healthcare plans covering schoolteachers and hospital workers.

[New Culture War Will Help Rick Santorum, Barack Obama.]

Conscience means this: Government shall not impose upon anyone to receive contraceptive services (or blood transfusions, or transplants, or any other treatments) against their wishes. It cannot decide what happens inside church walls. It cannot dictate private beliefs. But nor can it allow churches to impose their views in areas of employment having nothing to do with either worship or belief.

Charitable institutions, schools, and hospitals fall under the purview of public policy, not private conscience. And the policy is a fair one.

Roger N. Lancaster

About Roger N. Lancaster Director of Cultural Studies at George Mason University

birth control
Obama, Barack
Obama administration

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