Friday, February 17, 2012

Religion Doesn't Trump Civil Law. Period.

Many of you have no doubt heard of or have been following the for-some-reason-suddenly-a-big-deal issue of the birth control mandate. Seeing as the Affordable Care Act was passed nearly 2 years ago, I don't get why it just now became an issue. Anyways, all of that aside, let's have some background to it, for those of you who don't know.

About a week or so ago, conservatives and religious officials (most notably of the Catholic Church) created an uproar about a particular part of the ACA, which required that businesses provide women with free birth control as part of their insurance plans. What really got them going was the fact that this applied to religiously affiliated institutions, like Catholic hospitals and universities. So, naturally, everyone cried "WAR ON RELIGION!!!" at the mandate. One college president even said that this was "an issue worth dying for." A bit of a drama queen, no? Never mind the fact that actual religious institutions like churches were exempt from the rule. Never mind the fact that the same or similar laws are already on the books in 28 states. Never mind the fact that Romney's health care plan had the same mandate. Never mind the fact that many Republicans were, in fact, in favor of such mandates before this brouhaha. And never mind the fact that the people who work in these colleges and hospitals are in many cases not Catholic or even Christian at all! In any case, what happened as a result? Well, Obama came out and said, fine, employers of these types of institutions don't have to provide them directly, but insurers have to reach out to women who work at these places and provide it to them for free. Naturally, this wasn't good enough, the entire mandate had to go. Jokes about Bayer Aspirin ensued and a gaggle of religious men came to testify about women's health in front of Congress. 

Clearly there's something wrong here. Clearly the people opposed to the mandate don't realize there's a great deal of precedent  on this sort of thing. They obviously don't remember the 1990 ruling of  Employment Division v. Smith, in which the ruling was that religious belief doesn't trump an otherwise neutral civil law. They don't seem to remember that in 2007, the Catholic Church sued the state of New York because of a similar mandate. The state of New York won, and what's more, the Supreme Court upheld the decision. They also don't seem to remember that, as I said before, this is on the books in 28 other states, and that each and every time, Church officials cried foul. One writer said that "the Catholic Church will shut down before it violates its faith." What she didn't seem to realize was that the Church was in compliance with similar mandates throughout the U.S. already. Just a few names of places in compliance: Fordham, Georgetown, DePaul, and Catholic Healthcare West, the fifth-largest health system in the country. Nobody died, society didn't collapse, the American family didn't implode, and the Catholic Church most certainly didn't shut down.

Women who work in religiously affiliated hospitals or colleges don't have any less of a need for this kind of health care than women who work in other colleges or hospitals. It isn't as if women who work for Catholic colleges or hospitals don't get pregnant. Hell, why do American Catholics care? The idea that they don't use contraception because of religious teaching is laughable. Not to mention that a majority of Americans and a majority of Catholics support the mandate and the idea of birth control. Moreover, health plans that don't include services that only women use constitute a form of discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. So it not only makes little sense from a practical standpoint, but it also is kind of against the law. Being part of a modern society involves having some level of tolerance for other peoples' preferences without constantly threatening to secede when you don't always get your way. There's no war on religion in America. The government isn't storming into your local churches and rewriting the sermons. They aren't making churches provide birth control. They don't make any religious institutions pay taxes. And all of that is fine with me. But in return, we as a society expect our tolerance to be repaid in kind with tolerance, not with this.

Anyways, what's my take on this whole thing? Well, for one, it seems ridiculous to me that its even an issue. There's a great deal of irony in seeing the heads of these religiously-affiliated hospitals and colleges bemoaning the supposed loss of their religious freedom while simultaneously seeking to impose their religiously-inspired views on birth control on the women who work for them, and indeed on the rest of us.