THE COMPROMISE on contraceptive coverage announced by President Obama earlier this month has failed to quell the acrimonious debate around the issue. Under the revised rules, Catholic institutions will not be required to directly subsidize birth control pills and the morning-after pill, which church officials consider morally wrong. But their insurance companies will, and that’s still too much for many bishops, who want a blanket exemption for Catholic institutions. The administration was right to make a good-faith effort to respect the religious beliefs of those signing the checks, ensuring they don’t pay for contraception, but now the administration must stand against efforts to weaken the coverage of individual employees.
The policy, which stems from the health care overhaul passed in 2010, requires all insurers to provide prescription contraception at no additional charge. The overwhelming majority of American women have used contraception at some point, but many have experienced difficulty paying for it. Using insurance to reduce the cost is only fair, and wider availability of birth control will result in fewer unintended pregnancies and lower health care costs overall.
The federal rules echo regulations that already exist in dozens of states that require health insurers to provide coverage for contraceptives. Many Catholic institutions have abided by those laws for years. Many states, as well as the federal regulations, exempt churches themselves; it’s only church-affiliated institutions like hospitals and universities that are affected. And that’s an essential distinction: it’s reasonable to expect churches, when acting as employers in non-religious settings, to obey labor laws, worker safety regulations - and health insurance rules.
Indeed, Catholic institutions’ ability to coexist with birth control mandates on the state level suggests that the federal policy is not quite the assault on religious liberty that some are now trying to depict it as. In the selective outrage of those arguing for further exemptions, it’s hard not to detect a whiff of politics: They seem to be betting that in an election year, they can flex their muscles and force the administration to back down.
As they fan the controversy, the advocates for religious institutions have tried to shift the focus away from employees at Catholic institutions and instead frame the debate as a discussion of the church’s own rights. But the people whose rights are at stake here are the nurses, teachers, janitors, and other women, of multiple religions, who happen to work at religious-affiliated institutions and would be deprived of coverage if their employers get their way. The legislation introduced by Missouri Senator Roy Blunt to overturn the contraception policy would open the door for any religious employers to reject any health care rule if they have a moral objection - in essence, making scores of legal protections optional.
In a pluralistic society, religious groups that step out of the pulpit and into the public square have to play by the same rules as everyone else. The First Amendment isn’t a carte blanche for believers to make their own rules. Quakers opposed to war still have to pay taxes that support the military; a court in California ruled in 2008 that Christian doctors can’t cite their religious beliefs to deny gays and lesbians medical care. The same principle should apply to religious institutions when it comes to contraception.