Health care versus religious freedom

The controversy surrounding the Obama Administration’s decision to extend coverage of reproductive services to employees of church-sponsored organizations has thrust the concept of religious liberty into the national spotlight.

What does it really mean when we say that we believe in religious freedom? What religious rights does the Constitution, as interpreted by the courts over past 200 years, really protect? How do these rights inform us concerning the issue of providing reproductive health care to women who happen to work for religiously sponsored institutions?

The wording of the First Amendment, like so much in the Constitution, is pretty simple and straightforward. It is in the interpretation things seem to get muddled.

The text of the amendment’s Establishment of Religion Clause states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

In general, the interpretations of the clause has taken two different directions. One is the so-called “separation of church and state” perspective. Based on correspondence of Thomas Jefferson, the clause was to serve as a “wall of separation” between the government and religious institutions. In this interpretation, the state cannot establish an official religion, nor can it overtly or covertly support or endorse any particular religious persuasion.

The other interpretation is called the perspective of “accommodation,” which posits that the First Amendment only prohibits the establishment of a state church and does not prohibit the state from accommodating religion in society. This conservative point of view suggests Americans are a religious people and “accommodating” religion is in the nation’s best, and moral, interest. Conservatives, as they are apt to argue, suggest everything which ails society is ultimately due to a lack of religiosity.

Since the 1960’s, the courts have ruled religious activity in the public square ought to be accommodated unless there was a “compelling interest” on the part of the state to prevent such religious conduct. An example came in 1972 in Wisconsin v. Yoder. The state of Wisconsin charged and convicted three sets of Amish parents who refused to send their children to school beyond the eighth grade.

The case went to the U.S. Supreme court where in a unanimous decision the conviction of the parents was reversed on religious grounds. The state did not have a “compelling” reason to force the parents to send their children to school in opposition to their religious beliefs.

Justice Hugo Black wrote a “partial dissent.” Though he agreed with the unanimous decision regarding the parents’ religious freedom, he was concerned with the religious circumstances of the children.

Black wrote: “The children should [have been] entitled to be heard. While the parents … normally speak for the entire family, the education of the child is a matter on which the child will often have decided views. He may want to be a pianist or an astronaut or an oceanographer. To do so he will have to break from the Amish tradition. It is the future of the students, not the future of the parents, that is imperiled by today's decision.”

A similar circumstance arises now concerning the availability of reproductive health services provided through religiously sponsored institutions. The hierarchy of the church might have a claim regarding the religious accommodation interpretation of the First Amendment, but, as with Wisconsin v. Yoder, the true compelling interest is not with the church hierarchy, but the women who will be denied reproductive health coverage should the churches decide to refuse such coverage.

Religious liberty is of vital interest for a free society. Religious liberty cuts two ways: First, the free practice of a particular religious belief cannot be curtailed. Secondly, the practice of a particular religious belief should not be forced on those outside the belief system. If a church-sponsored hospital or college wishes to serve people with services and with employment they should not be allowed to deny health insurance that is otherwise universally available.

The conflict over whether church-affiliated, non-worshipping institutions will likely be played out in the courts and in the 2012 presidential election process.

Our religious persuasions need to be considered in the context of residing in a pluralistic society. If our political perspective causes us to be opposed to national health care, then we ought fight that fight on the political and economic issues involved and not drag the emotion of religion into the fray.

To do so ultimately undermines the proper role of religion in society. Religion’s purpose is to connect believers with whatever the particular faith understands to be ultimately sacred, and to connect believers to others and to the world in some sacred way. It ought not be used to divide and conquer.

History proves that when religion is used as a weapon in our conflicts, everyone loses.

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