Letters & Op-Eds 2012
Albany Times Union

It’s a matter of conscience

Family planning is under attack. The decision by the federal Department of Health and Human Services to require most employers to cover preventive health care for women, including family planning at no extra cost, has met with intense opposition from conservative forces.

Leading the charge have been the nation’s 260 Catholic bishops. Their coordinated campaign follows several efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, despite all the fine work that organization does for health care in general and women’s reproductive health in particular.

Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan has been beating the drum, calling for Catholics to protest the HHS decision on the grounds that it violates “religious liberty.”

“Never before has the federal government forced individuals and organizations to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience,” Dolan said.

Despite this doomsday rhetoric, the federal government is doing no such thing. The conscience exemptions for religious employers that the HHS adopted are similar to a state law that has been in place since 2002, without there being any precipitous decline in religious liberty in New York.

When contraceptive coverage for employees was made state law, the New York State Conference of Catholic Bishops said, “Catholic institutions will continue for the immediate future providing the contraception coverage under formal protest.”

Shortly thereafter, Catholic Charities filed suit for an expanded exemption in New York and lost three times in the state courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court rejected their appeal in 2007.

The courts could not find a reason to justify denying this benefit to employees. The courts preserved a long-standing distinction: religiously affiliated institutions, like schools and hospitals, do not get the exemption because they are very different from religious institutions like churches, which were, and are, exempted from some laws, including this one. Following the decisions, everyone went back to work, where they got insurance coverage for contraception, and the hysterical, unsubstantiated claims about trampling of religious liberty were quieted.

Nine years later, the bishops have announced they will appeal the HHS decision, too. There’s not much new. It is important that those who listen to the bishops’ argument know what they are speaking for. It’s not religious liberty, at least not as most Americans and Catholics understand the concept.

The bishops’ idea of “religious liberty” means that one narrow interpretation of one religious tradition will be allowed to run roughshod over the religious beliefs of every single American while continuing to take millions of dollars of federal and state public funds to do so.

Catholics believe that each person has a conscience, an inviolable inner core that informs our decisionmaking and compels each of us to act in the way that we have decided is morally correct. Many American women, and most Catholic women, choose to use birth control, and in doing so reject the bishops’ opposition to it. In fact, 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women have used a form of birth control banned by the Vatican, according to the National Survey of Family Growth, a report sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control.

If the bishops’ idea of “religious liberty” doesn’t take into account all of these women, their partners and their families, nor Americans with different faiths or no faith, then everyone should beware of getting in line behind their Pied Piper call to defend freedom of religion.

Just as “freedom of speech” is no defense for shouting “fire” in a crowd when there’s no fire, “religious liberty” is no defense for discriminating against women because of where they work, especially when there’s no interference with anyone’s religious belief or practice. If the alarmist predictions of a world hostile to religious liberty are not evident in New York after nearly a decade of a similar policy, it may be because contraceptive coverage actually protects the religious liberty of most people.

This letter was originally published in the Albany Times Union.

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