First Amendment freedoms don’t place churches above the law

When the contraception issue first made headlines a week or two ago, the American Catholic Bishops went over the top to vigorously complain about their loss of religious freedom and liberty, and that the administration had “cast aside the First Amendment to the Constitution.” The rule they were complaining about required all employers to provide various forms of preventive health care, such as vaccinations for children, wellness exams for seniors, and contraception for women of child-bearing age. Statistics show that insurance companies save money when they provide these preventive services.

While religious orders and churches were specifically made exempt from the contraception rule, independent church-related entities, such as universities and health care institutions, were not exempt. Those entities employ people of all religions or no religion and serve the general public without regard to religious affiliation, thus taking them outside of the exemption for purely religious organizations.

Because of these concerns, the rule was relaxed by the administration to expand the church exemption to religiously affiliated institutions. The employees will get contraception services without charge directly from health insurance companies. Thus, Catholic and Catholic-related institutions will not be required to pay for contraceptive services.

In continuing their complaints about religious freedom and the First Amendment, the bishops are not on firm ground. Their First Amendment rights are not absolute. The freedom of religion is subject to a balancing test among competing interests in any particular situation. A person or a church may have the right to preach about their doctrine that contraception is immoral, but they don’t have the same right to enforce that doctrine on unwilling individuals or non-believers. That is civil law, and the church should keep out of civil law. That’s called separation of church and state.

The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops recently stated that the “nationwide mandate of insurance coverage ... is both unsupported in the law and remains a grave moral concern.” Since 1968, Catholic theologians from around the world have questioned the status of the church teaching on contraception. The threat here is not to the religious freedom of the church, but to the personal freedom and conscience of women who are entitled by law to have access to these benefits and the right to receive the highest quality of health care, including contraception, no matter who they work for. It is hoped the final details of this controversy can be resolved on that basis – women’s’ health.

Richard P. McLaughlin, Youngstown