What is religious freedom?

Religious groups and Republican presidential hopefuls Rick Santorum, Mitt RomneyNewt Gingrich, and even Ron Paul, are claiming that the recent health care reforms in the US amount to an attack on religious freedom.

It seems that employers who offer health benefits cannot choose to omit “objectionable” services on the basis of religious dogma. Specifically, they cannot exclude coverage for contraceptives. Opponents of the reforms assert that, by being forced to contribute to health plans that cover these services, their religious freedom is being tossed aside.

First of all, let me say that I understand their objection. While I don’t share it, I understand that if you believe contraceptives are evil, it must be galling to be in a position where you may be financially supporting their use.

On the other hand, does this policy really net out as an attack on religious freedom?

Let me share a couple of reasons I think it is not.*

First, let’s look at parallel cases. What about a church that takes literally the old testament injunction about punishment for disobedient children? Is it religiously intolerant for the civil authorities to prohibit stoning them? No.

What about people who come from a culture where an man’s honour is more important than his wife’s or daughter’s life? Is it religiously intolerant to treat him as a murderer for satisfying his (often religiously-motivated) sense of honour? No.

Why are these not cases of religious intolerance? Because the rights of the victims not to be beaten or killed trump the rights of their attackers to satisfy whatever code of ethics they are following.

And, whether you agree with it or not, modern developed societies have decided that individuals have rights to reproductive freedom – to decide whether to separate acts of sex from acts of reproduction, through the use of contraception, and to not allow an embryo to develop into a full human being, through abortion. So far, it seems to me that the current issue is parallel with these other, less controversial issues.

Also, remember that individuals, not organizations, have rights. They are human rights, not corporate rights. So, when two “rights” appear to be in conflict – on the one hand the individual’s right to reproductive choice; on the other hand the employing organization’s right to express religious prohibitions – it is always going to be the individual’s right that triumphs.

Note that, in most cases, these will not conflict. Employees of Catholic hospitals will tend to be observant Catholics, for example. But there are plenty of Catholics who disagree with the Catholic Church’s stance on contraception. (Just as there are Jews who eat non-Kosher. I think this observation refutes William Lori’s very clever “ham sandwich defense“.)

Nothing in the law requires anyone to use contraception (contrary to the shrieks of some self-perceived victims of this law). So the question in my mind is this: should a person be free to choose contraception, as they would other (covered) medical services? Or should the employer be given veto right? If the relevant human rights laws assert a right to reproductive health services (such as contraception and sterilization), then that’s that. Rights are rights. If you disagree, try to get the rights legislation rescinded.

It is more complicated than this, of course. If health care in the US were a universal, socialized operation – as it is in most of the developed world – then these conservative religious employers would have no reason to worry. It would not be their money, but general tax money, paying for the services. (Yes, there would of course be taxpayers who would object to supporting these procedures – but that’s a different kettle of worms.)

The point is that, yes, as things stand, it looks like employers – even those affiliated with particular religious beliefs – are required to offer comprehensive health insurance. They don’t get to opt out, any more than religious educational institutions would get to opt out of child abuse laws just because they “sincerely believe” that lashes are the only appropriate, god-sanctioned way to enforce discipline.

Religious freedom doesn’t mean that you can use sincere religious belief as a loophole to ignore laws you don’t like. It means that laws cannot be created solely to discriminate against particular religious groups. It means that laws must be applied equally to all people, regardless of religious sentiment.

Is the current solution imperfect? Sure. Even more enlightened, socialized health care systems are imperfect.

Is the “Obamacare” solution eroding religious liberty? Of course not.

I’ll close with a quote from a very well-written editorial on the issue. I encourage you to read the whole thing, but this is the core:

The courts have consistently held that freedom of religion is not absolute. Religious actions have been regulated throughout American history to preserve or promote the public good. Providing health care, including contraceptives, is a public good. Religious practices have been banned when they are contrary to the public good. Freedom of belief is absolute; freedom to act on the basis of belief is regulated and must not injure others.

Footnote:

* Of course, it may be that these attacks over-state what the law demands of employers. See here for another perspective.

One Response to “What is religious freedom?”

  1. Dearbhla Says:

    Hi Tim, this is Dearbhla, Deena’s friend from Boston. Hope you’re all doing well! Could you please ask Deena to send me your mailing address when she has a moment? Susu has a painting she wants to send to Kaia :)

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