Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Violation of Religious Freedom or a Prevention of Religious Domination?

The Obama administration has decided that large institutions run by religious organizations cannot be exempted from including birth control in the health insurance plans they offer.  The rule does exempt churches and other places of worship whose primary purpose is to facilitate the practice of religion.  However, if a religious institution runs a hospital, a university, or another organization that goes beyond religious services, thereby servicing and possibly employing many people outside that religion, then they must comply with this new ruling.  Making sure birth control is easily available to women is a feature of the Affordable Care Act.
The Obama administration’s reasoning is based on the position of many, many medical organizations that making birth control easily available to women is a good for the public health that cannot be compromised by an employer, even if the employer is affiliated with a religion that disagrees with the practice.  Once again, churches would be exempted, but not institutions affiliated with religion serving the greater community beyond the specific practice of religion.  Of course, the Catholic Church is very, very unhappy about this decision as they run many hospitals and universities which would fall under the birth control coverage mandate.
I had to think about this for a while.  Religious liberty is a foundation of our society and should never be taken lightly.  But after considering it for a couple of days, I agree with the administration’s position.
First, we must establish that there is a limit on the practice of religious freedom.  Few would argue that Native Americans should not be able to smoke peyote in their ancient religious rituals.  (Actually, I think anyone should be able to do this, but I suppose that is another subject!).   However, imagine a religion with an initiation ritual requiring five year old children to walk five miles barefoot in the snow.  Let’s call this religion Freezism.  And when practicing this Freezist ritual, hypothermia frequently sets in.  Would our society tolerate this tradition?  Probably not, because of how the religious practice would affect others - namely five year old children who are too young to choose this religious practice for themselves.   So this barefoot snow ritual would not be an exercise of religious freedom so much as it would be an exercise of religious domination because of the risk of severe physical injury to those too young to participate in a truly willing manner.
So religious liberty is not an absolute - just like freedom of speech does not cover threats of violence or yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater when there is no fire.
Now imagine a university or a hospital run by a religion that does not believe in treating heart disease.  Let's call this religion Coronism. Their theology posits that God’s relationship with man dwells physically within a person’s heart, therefore no medical treatment should directly interfere with a person’s ticker.  It is a danger to a person’s soul.  Now imagine that this institution, a hospital let’s say, employs many, many people not affiliated with Coronism, and the hospital tries to exclude heart disease treatment from the health insurance policies offered to its employees.
Surely this would be too great a burden on the public health to be allowed.  It would be religious domination rather than religious freedom.  The Coronists would be forcing their employees to go without heart disease coverage, or to pursue coverage elsewhere at much greater personal expense.  The Coronists would be forcing unwanted religious restrictions, or at least the hardship of bypassing (haha) them, onto employees, onto workers in the community.
By requiring the Coronists to include heart disease treatment in the health insurance policies they offer, no one is forcing any Coronist to receive heart disease treatment.  But no one is allowing the Coronists to make it difficult for their employees to get the treatments they may need and desire and which medical science tells us are associated with health and well-being.
Now imagine another religion that does not believe in fire alarms.  Pyroism? Surely if the Pyrists ran a hospital for the general public, they would not be allowed to subject their employees and clientele to that danger?
At the risk of changing the subject temporarily, I actually think the real problem with the Obama/Catholic conflict is the link between the employer/employee relationship and health insurance.  This link is terrible.  An employer should offer pay.  That’s it.  Then individuals should purchase their own insurance.  We would have greater job mobility for workers, and Catholics could create their own policies which do not cover birth control, while employees at Catholic institutions (Catholic and non-Catholic alike) could buy the insurance they want which provides the services they desire.
But that is not the world we live in.
So the issue of religious freedom means deciding when one person’s “freedom” infringes on the freedom of another.   And the Obama administration has decided that when a church operates an institution that goes beyond the specificities of religious practice, not covering birth control creates an undue burden on the health and well-being of employees.  It is not an expression of religious freedom, it is an expression, however big or small, of religious domination.
And I agree.  Do you?


  1. Yes, just think of Christian Scientists running, say, a nursing home, say, and employing non-members but only giving them their own (non-medical) insurance, such as it is. What a disaster.

    If a sect is completely insular, running its own institution for itself and by its own efforts, then the bar would be lower (child endangemerment and other grievous malfeasance, as you note), but otherwise, we gotta have some standards protecting the general public & workers.

  2. This is very nicely done: A clear explication of what's at issue and a compelling argument. It helped clarify my own thinking on the issue. Thanks!

  3. Thanks, Susan, Burk and Eric!

    My examples are a bit clumsy, but they helped me to think through this one.

  4. A more enlightened counter-argument usually runs thusly:
    The workers at the Coronist hospital/university/institution, be they Coronist or non-Coronist, have chosen to work at that hospital/university/institution. Even though the hospital/university/institution may go beyond the "specific practice of religion," they are still a religious institution and therefore the workers can choose to work there or not to work there. If the workers choose to work there, they are implicitly agreeing to be bound by the rules of that religious institution.
    (For instance, there are religiously affiliated universities out there that require faculty members to sign a "code of conduct" or other "proclamation of lifestyle"... even in physics!)
    The counter-counter-argument then becomes one of access to jobs. It's not often that you find a large Catholic hospital and a large secular hospital in the same town. Do the workers really have a choice whether or not to work there, or is their choice really work at the religious institution or else move to another town? I, for one, would agree to work at Notre Dame - because the physics department is so strong and the facilities are good and unlike elsewhere in the US. Does that mean I've "chosen" to work at ND and be subject to their religious rules? No, it means I'd prefer to work in their physics department over working in someone else's physics department. It has nothing to do with religion.
    I agree with you and the Obama administration in this issue, but it is a tough call.

  5. Kelly,

    Absolutely right. I decided to drop that part of my post, so I am so glad you brought it up. It's what I was thinking of with the "workers in the community" phrase.

    Yes, a business or non-profit providing a service is doing a good thing, but they are also monopolizing a segment of the market that someone else could have serviced in their stead. So they have responsibilities.

    Another argument that I did not cover is the idea that an institution should have to pay for services they don't believe in.

    But we all pay taxes and those taxes are frequently used for things we don't believe in. Sure, a church doesn't pay taxes because of concerns of government involvement in church business, but a church-run institution (hospital, etc.) does not pay taxes, not because it is church-related necessarily, but because it is a non-profit providing a public good.

    And the government, by deciding who does and does not pay taxes, must establish what a public good is. And this could include a requirement to provide access to birth control.

  6. Typo corrected:

    " Few would argue that Native Americans should NOT not be able to smoke peyote in their ancient religious rituals"

    Thanks, Skyhook.