Sunday, February 19, 2012

Religious Liberty at Stake?

The conflict between the U.S. Government and the U.S. Catholic bishops over rules requiring employees of Catholic institutions such as universities and hospitals to have birth control pills supplied to them as part of their health insurance is portrayed by the bishops as a matter of religious liberty. In Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, artificial birth control is designated as immoral. The bishops therefore object to Roman Catholic institutions being forced to supply contraceptives as part of their employees’ health care packages. To make them pay for something they believe, for religious reasons, is morally wrong would be, they argue, an infringment upon religious liberty.

However, religious practices in the United States are regularly trumped by secular law when there is a conflict. For instance, Native Americans who believe in using peyote as part of their religious rituals were fired from their government jobs for doing so, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld it in 1990.

Likewise, traditionalist members of the Sikh religion believe that a man should avoid cutting his hair, and should bind it up in a turban. So what if an orthodox Sikh gets a job as a construction worker? He can’t get a hard hat on over the turban. Does he have the right to forgo the hard hat on the construction site, so as to retain his turban? The question went to the US courts, and they said Sikhs have to wear hard hats.

Further, Muslim religious laws and practices have been over-ruled in the United States by the courts. American law forbids Muslim-American men to take a second wife, something legal to them in many of their home countries. State law tends to award community property in cases of divorce instead of the much smaller payments men can make to divorced women in Islamic law, even if the couple have specified in their marriage contract that Muslim law (sharia) will govern these issues.

So, I was pleasantly surprised by President Obama’s notion to not make Roman Catholic instituitions pay for contraception for their employees, but for others to pay the price of such coverage. I was pleased that there was a compromise that didn’t force Catholic institutions into betraying their conscience. I considered it a good day for those, like me, that support religious liberty.

The Roman Catholic bishops, however, saw it differently. They wanted, not only, to not have to pay for the coverage, but they wanted the power to forbid the coverage to their employees. In this instance, the claim of religious liberty being at stake rings hollow in my ears. If anyone was forced to take contraceptives, then certainly there would be religious liberty issues at stake (among other issues!). In this case, forcing Roman Catholics to pay for something they believe to be immoral at least raised religious liberty questions. But, not allowing the Roman Catholic Church to prohibit employees of universities and hospitals owned by the Roman Catholic Church from recieving contraception moves the proverbial “goal posts.”

1 comment:

Charles Hawkins said...

My high school classmate, now professor of sociology at Auburn University, made the following correction to my blog.

While the Supreme Court upheld Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith (1990), the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 in effect overturned the decision. Members of the Native American Church can use peyote in religious ceremonies.