March 2012 Church & State | Editorial

The Roman Catholic hierarchy is upset over a recent decision by the Obama administration not to exempt some church-affiliated institutions from a federal mandate requiring employers to provide birth control coverage in health insurance plans. Although their arguments are delivered with great passion, the church leaders are misguided.

This new rule is a common sense approach that forges a reasonable compromise. It doesn’t apply to houses of worship, leaving decision-making in the hands of clergy for institutions that are purely spiritual. The rule does cover religiously affiliated entities like hospitals, colleges and social service agencies.

Unlike houses of worship, these institutions serve a public purpose. Most rely on taxpayer subsidies and assist people with different religious perspectives. Many hire individuals without regard to what they believe about theology.

Millions of Americans work in places like these. The government has the right – and even the duty – to protect their interests. If these religiously affiliated entities are given broad exemptions from the law, all of those employees – from the janitor who mops the floors at a Catholic hospital to the attendant who collects fares at a church college parking garage – will find their rights in jeopardy.

The birth control rule is a matter of simple pragmatism. Americans rely on birth control and support its use. A whopping 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women use artificial contraceptives. Comprehensive health care insurance should include something that is so widely depended upon.

Although Catholic doctrine holds that use of birth control is wrong, church leaders have been unable to persuade their own members to follow this dictate. They now seek an exemption from the government, in effect enlisting the state as enforcer of their theology.

Access to birth control is only one issue. Religious groups have demanded – and sometimes received – exemptions from civil rights laws and other regulations that offer protections that American workers take for granted.

The ability of Americans to access birth control is a compelling public interest. The government has the power to ensure citizens are not denied this right.

The purpose of this policy isn’t to foster government control of religion; it is to protect the public interest and the rights of all Americans. The bishops are complaining that the policy is a violation of their religious freedom. That freedom is important – but it must never become an excuse for them to dodge the accountability that is expected of any organization that readily accepts taxpayer support.