Can the federal government force the owner of a company to do something that violates his or her deeply held religious beliefs? That question is set to be answered next summer, when the Supreme Court decides the constitutionality of a controversial provision of the Affordable Care Act.
The provision requires most employers, including religious ones, to cover the full cost of contraception for each of their employees. The business owners who have brought the lawsuits find birth control to be morally objectionable and are protesting being forced to subsidize its use.
But in the popular press, the issue at stake has tended to be framed differently. As the National Journal put it last week, the question is "whether a private entity has the right to restrict individuals' access to contraception." In this formulation, it is taken for granted that not paying for something is the same as "restricting access" to that thing. Others have gone a step further, declaring that when an employer chooses not to pay for something because of her religious beliefs, she is imposing those beliefs on her employees.
But are the two actually equivalent?
They are – to precisely the same extent that my employer's choosing not to pay for the meatball sub I had for lunch means he's imposing his vegetarianism on me.
Of course, few would dare argue an employer who doesn't buy your lunch is relegating you to death by starvation, or even dictating to you what you can or cannot eat. Instead, we all intuitively recognize that workers are compensated in other ways, most notably, through wages. Those wages can be used to buy virtually anything an employee might desire, up to and including a meatball sandwich or a little packet of pills.
The plaintiffs in the contraception challenge are not claiming their employees shouldn't have the right to use their wages to pay for contraceptives. Rather, they are objecting to being forced by the government to spend their own dollars, above and beyond an employee's wages, to subsidize the cost of something that encroaches on the practice of their faith.
Would we say that an employer who doesn't directly subsidize an employee's church, mosque or synagogue is infringing on that employee's right to freedom of religion? In fact, I posed that question in a satirical post a few weeks back, and the responses I got were unequivocal – the government has no business requiring one person to spend his money on the construction or upkeep of another person's house of worship. Here, readers had no trouble distinguishing between the altogether different acts of expecting an employee to pay for something for himself, on the one hand, and restricting his access to it, on the other.
As one sensible commenter wondered, why don't we just "let people donate their own money to whatever they want and not tie employment into it at all"?
Yes – why don't we?