The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 27, 2014

Freedom issue skewed in birth control case


The Mankato Free Press

---- — Columnist Kathleen Parker’s recent op-ed on religious liberty (Free Press, Feb. 12) turns the 1st Amendment upside down. Instead of its guaranteeing everyone’s freedom of religion, she wants it to allow some persons, in the name of religious freedom, to impose their values on other people.

Specifically, she thinks employers, as an expression of their religious freedom, should be able, on religious grounds, to restrict their employees’ opportunity to receive insurance coverage for contraceptives. The employers at the center of this presently are the Catholic Church and Hobby Lobby. They do not want to comply with the Affordable Care Act’s insurance mandate for contraceptive coverage.

The courts have already made clear a relevant distinction here. On religious grounds, a person can refuse life-saving medical treatment for oneself. But parents cannot, claiming freedom of religion, refuse life-saving treatment for their child. That would be using their religious freedom to impose their values on someone else.

So, has the distinction led to courts also banning parents from saying a prayer before supper? No, first, because parents are granted considerable leeway in raising their children. Secondly, and more importantly, whereas provision or absence of life-saving treatment has serious, frequently irreversible consequences, the prayer has relatively far less consequences and the issue is easily reversible if the child so decides when grown up.

If this restriction on religious freedom can hold even within the family, shouldn’t it hold all the more strongly in much looser social relationships, such as employment? Isn’t it also clear that use or non-use of contraceptives, like provision or absence of life-saving treatment, has serious, frequently irreversible consequences?

The Catholic Church and Hobby Lobby can defend their position with any of the following faulty arguments: (1) Their religious freedom is an absolute right regardless of the consequences for other people; (2) A Catholic school or hospital and Hobby Lobby are not imposing their religious values on others because affected employees are free to find employment elsewhere; (3) The insurance mandate forces them to support and to condone actions contrary to their religious beliefs, thereby violating their religious freedom; (4) Employers refusing insurance coverage for contraceptives does not place a significant burden on anyone else, because contraceptives are quite inexpensive and widely available elsewhere.

Why are these faulty arguments?

About (1): Its problems should be obvious.

About (2): This is just like saying you can refuse to hire a colored person in your business or refuse to serve a colored person in your restaurant because they can always go somewhere else. That “going somewhere else” option as an expression of one’s own religious freedom confers secondary status on other persons’ beliefs about religion and harms them economically, socially and personally.

About (3): Employers providing insurance coverage that includes contraceptives does not show support for, or condonance of, how employees use their insurance.

About (4): One of the most effective ways of providing preventative health care focuses on including preventative measures within routine health care.

Since use of contraceptives is actually the chosen way of preventing unplanned pregnancies for most people, it makes good sense then to include them within routine insurance coverage.

If you really believe in the right to religious freedom, you need also to be tolerant enough to grant the right to others, even when their beliefs on religion are contrary to your own. You shouldn’t insist on the power to impose your religious views on others.

Aside from a right, there is the question of respecting the sensitivities of religious institutions, for example, the Catholic Church — but not Hobby Lobby.

It seems to me that the willingness to have the insurance company cover the costs of contraceptive coverage for employees, without requiring a Catholic hospital or school to pay for it, more than adequately meets concerns about sensitivity.

Ron Yezzi, now emeritus professor of philosophy at Minnesota State University, taught courses in social and political philosophy. He lives in Mankato.