Contraception and the Culture War
For a week or so in early February religion was once again at the center of media attention (this time unrelated to the lingering issue of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism). Using powers given her by the “Obamacare” legislation, Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human services, issued a regulation concerning the requirement that all employer-provided health insurance must include free coverage of contraception for women. The administration was aware of the fact that Catholics and perhaps other religious groups might have a problem with this. So churches, defined as institutions that provide religious services to their own members only, were exempt from the requirement—but not institutions which, though church-related, provide services to people irrespective of their faith, such as hospitals, schools or social agencies. There is a curious paradox here: In earlier cases the federal courts have decided that public funds could go to religious institutions if they provided useful services to the general public; now these very services are treated as if they constituted a flaw. The underlying assumption is that the proper function of religion is intramural worship—a strange endorsement of the sect as the only true religious institution. There is a further paradox: In a recent case, which involved the firing of a teacher at a Lutheran school, which regarded her as being religious personnel (which she denied), the Supreme Court sided with the school. The decision maintained that the state could not dictate to a church who is or is not performing religious duties; in the matter at issue now, the state asserts the right to tell a church that a service provided by it—such as care for the sick—is unrelated to its religious mission (a proposition which would have startled Mother Teresa and generations of nursing nuns).
Be this as it may, the administration was apparently surprised by the storm of protests unleashed by the HHS regulation. In the fore of the protests were the Catholic bishops and other Catholic leaders, but they were strongly supported by Evangelicals and some Orthodox Jews. As one would expect, some liberal Protestant voices were raised in support of HHS. All the Republican candidates for the presidency enthusiastically and noisily joined the protest. The protesters insisted that the issue here is not women’s health (as HHS claimed), but religious freedom: Neither individuals nor institutions should be coerced by government to act in violation of their faith. This particular action of government must therefore be understood as a direct assault on the freedom of religion guaranteed by the first amendment to the constitution. And here is what, I think, is most interesting: The protesters include people who have long been opposed to contraception (such as Catholic bishops, though, as survey data show, not a majority of lay Catholics), and people who have not considered contraception as religiously or morally wrong (many if not most Evangelicals). That is something new, and worth paying attention to.