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Bill Knight - February 23

Bill Knight

Churches help people worship God, not institutions. States help people serve communities, not bureaucracies.

However, things can get messy. Take last month’s government announcement that contraceptives must be included in the basic health insurance by employers who happen to be churches. A reasonable compromise is likely, but the administration not relaxing that provision of the Affordable Care Act angered Catholic bishops. Condemnations of the rule have come from more than 150 bishops. However, those are men who’ve been unable to convince most Catholics of the validity of their teaching on birth control.

Republican Congresswoman Ann Marie Buerkle of New York said, “This is the government saying, ‘Set your beliefs aside, and we know what is best for you.’ It has a chilling effect on all religions.”

Again, however…

1) while church-owned institutions such as hospitals, schools and social service agencies that serve the general public or have workers from various faiths must comply, a religious organization remains exempt if it’s a seminary-type school, a place of worship, mainly employs people who share its faith, or primarily serves people of that faith.

2)  this isn’t forced sterilization of adolescents or state mandates on family size. This isn’t about religion; it’s about private employers and workers’ health insurance.

3) the new regulation does not require coverage of abortions.

4) although the rule takes effect in August, nonprofit groups that don’t provide such coverage now have an extra year to come up with an alternative so their employees’ insurance is like everyone else’s.

5) it’s not really new.

Health and Human Services spokesman Eric Shields said, “Similar regulations exist in multiple states that have had contraception coverage laws for over a decade, and this will have no impact on the protections that existing conscience laws and regulations have given to health care providers for more than three decades.”

Religious groups say they must be able to refrain from acts they deem morally questionable. Catholic Charities’ president Father Larry Snyder said that America’s heritage of respecting different faiths “gave us hope that as a religious institution we would be granted the freedom to remain faithful to our beliefs while also being committed to providing access to quality health care for our … employees and their families.”

But it’s not government’s role to compel all employees of church hospitals, etc. to abide by a hierarchy’s current interpretation of Scripture. A poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 58% of Catholics actually favor the mandate for employer-provided birth control coverage - more than the general public (55%).

Moreover, a 2007 Zogby poll said 67% of U.S. Catholics (men and women) disagree with church teaching that artificial birth control is wrong, and last year a similar poll of Catholic women found 98% had used some form of birth control banned by the Vatican, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Of course, the church is not a democracy. Still, the Catholic Catechism is explicit in noting that the church also is not just the elite. It says, “The word ‘church’ designates the liturgical assembly, but also the local community or the whole universal community of believers. These three meanings are inseparable. Lay believers … ought to have an ever-clearer consciousness not only of belonging to the Church, but of being the Church.”

If companies’ employees are not members of their owners’ faiths but merely workers, should they not have the rights others have? Should St. Louis’ Barnes-Jewish Hospital be able to require specialists and orderlies to wear Stars of David?  Should Peoria’s Methodist Medical Center be able to tell every accountant or nurse to adhere to the teachings of John Wesley? Should Chicago’s American Islamic College be able to tell every scholar or janitor to follow Sharia law?

Churches are protected by the First Amendment. But it doesn’t empower their commercial ventures to impose leaders’ beliefs on workers who may be non-believers.

Elsewhere, the church exists with little trouble in places where national health plans make contraceptives available. Here, more than half the states already require church-owned employers to cover contraceptives if they cover other prescription drugs.

However, there are options. For instance, in Hawaii, churches can refuse to cover contraceptives if they notify workers of the restriction and tell them where they can obtain such coverage and services. Maybe commercial interests owned by churches could replace health-care benefits with better wages that would permit employees to buy health coverage they want.

 Some ideas for accommodation are better than none - or the intransigence and absolutism that stifle discussion in a civil society.

Theologian and author Martin Marty said, “We live in a republic where not all electoral outcomes, legislative acts, or judicial decisions will satisfy the consciences of all conscientious people and interests, religious or not.”

Bill Knight is a freelance writer who teaches at Western Illinois University. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of WIU or Tri States Public Radio.


Rich is TSPR's News Director.