Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Liberal-Conservative Coalition

There is a group of Catholics who feel they are persistently persecuted for their religious beliefs. I'm generally not among them. But regarding the Department of Health and Human Services' new contraceptive mandate for health care providers, Catholics are right to protest vigorously.
     The widespread availability of contraceptives is not the issue.  But on this point, let me first acknowledge that on the part of many Catholics there is a lack of willingness to face reality where sexual ethics are concerned. I'll offer one illustration: that many young people will continue to have sex is an immutable fact, and their contracting STDs or becoming pregnant is absolutely not preferable to their using condoms. On the other hand, the notion that widely available contraception is a comprehensive solution to these problems is equally absurd. Rampant promiscuity amongst teens is plainly harmful to our society. Some people's behavior can be changed, and we should work towards that end.
     But again, none of this is the central issue here. Freedom to practice one's religion is. The HHS's requirement that new insurance plans provide free access to contraceptives (and sterilization) does include a proposed exemption for religious organizations (for which the period for public comment has just ended) that offer plans to their employees.  The problem lies in how HHS defines 'religious employer':

(B) For purposes of this subsection, a ``religious employer'' is an
organization that meets all of the following criteria:
(1) The inculcation of religious values is the purpose of the
(2) The organization primarily employs persons who share the
religious tenets of the organization.
(3) The organization serves primarily persons who share the
religious tenets of the organization.
(4) The organization is a nonprofit organization as described in
section 6033(a)(1) and section 6033(a)(3)(A)(i) or (iii) of the
Internal Revenue Code of 1986, as amended.

     The majority of Catholic hospitals, which do not seek to 'inculcate religious values' to the millions of sick people they serve--who are not predominantly Catholic (see Rule 3)--do not qualify for the exemption. This is intolerable. First, it makes no sense to penalize Catholic hospitals for opening their doors to those of other faiths (and those with no faith). Additionally, if one does accept the premise that easy access to contraception benefits society, it follows that policies should promote that access; it does not follow, however, that religious institutions should be forced to violate important tenets of the very faith that provides the impetus for their mission to help the sick.
     This blatant violation of religious freedom has raised the ire of a broad array of Catholic leaders and organizations--of every philosophical and political stripe--who vociferously object to the proposed rules. The breadth of this coalition should be a strong signal to HHS that the wording of this exemption needs to be altered to make it more inclusive. In a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, a group of prominent Roman Catholics, many of whom have repeatedly defended Obama administration policies, has proposed the following amendment to the definition of 'religious employer':

If it 1) is non-profit religious, educational, or charitable organization; 2) if it engages its religious, charitable, or educational activities for bona fide religious purposes or reasons; and if 3) it holds itself out to the public as a religious organization.

     This is a vast improvement. If HHS desires to show respect to Catholics in general--and if the Obama administration seeks to avoid an unnecessary political firestorm--they will adopt changes along these lines. I'm optimistic that they will.

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