Obamacare’s Awful Choice Between Contraception and Religious Freedom

We shouldn’t have to choose. Since we do, however…


Photo | Shutterstock.com

Are you for religious freedom or for women’s access to birth control? Me, I’m for both, but it sure doesn’t look like we’ll be able to leave it there.

Soon, the Supreme Court will hear a case in which private employers — including, notably, the craft-store chain Hobby Lobby — challenge Obamacare’s new mandate that employer-provided health insurance policies include contraception coverage. The employers say the edict violates their religious beliefs against birth control; the law’s defenders say that corportations like Hobby Lobby aren’t religious institutions and thus aren’t owed exemptions from a requirement that will be beneficial to millions of women.

And they’re both right.

Let’s back up a second and make a stipulation: This isn’t a fight we should be having. In a perfect world (for liberals, at least) Obamacare wouldn’t be the patchwork of public and private insurance programs that it is, with various mandates that of course are going to make many Americans feel like their freedom is being impinged upon. We’d all be better off — politically, certainly — if Obamacare was just a single-payer program: Everybody pays taxes, everybody gets health coverage, with the government both receiving and writing all the checks.

Instead, we’ve got … this. We can’t avoid the fights it raises until something better comes along.

So ultimately I come down on the side of the Obama Administration. Not because I don’t believe in religious liberty — but because I believe that in weighing the competing claims, we must side with individuals over institutions. It is not optimum for the federal government to require Hobby Lobby to go against the consciences of its owners. But it is even less optimum, I think, for the government let a big company dictate the terms of its employees’ health.

Conservatives will point out the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, while it does not confer a right to contraception paid for by your employer. They’re right. I don’t have a good answer to that objection, frankly, except that religious beliefs and public obligations come into conflict all the time in this country, and religious freedom doesn’t always win. We regularly balance that value against others.

Let me offer an example: I came up among Mennonites. Mennonites are profoundly, resolutely anti-war — they believe that Jesus was quite serious when he instructed his followers to “turn the other cheek.” Large groups of Mennonites fled Germany to Russia, and eventually to the United States, so that they might avoid conscription. They’ve lived mostly peaceably in this country; but the government has been resolute about one requirement — Mennonites (and Quakers, who are similarly pacifist) don’t get a religious exemption from paying taxes. They still have to help pay to support the war machine they find morally objectionable.

Or, as the ACLU says: “While religious liberty is a fundamental right, the courts have not allowed religious beliefs to be used to deny others benefits or services or to be used to discriminate against others.”

In other words: There are times when public policy and private conscience collide — and thus times when the citizen, acting as a citizen, faces obligations he or she would rather not fulfill. For employers like Hobby Lobby, that time is probably now. I’m on the side of the contraception mandate; I’d rather be on the side of a policy that didn’t force me to choose between women’s health or religious liberty. Maybe someday we’ll get there.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.

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  • Bill Shaw

    of course, if they took away your freedom of speech, or freedom of the press, you’d be first to come out against the Obama administration, you hypocrite.

    The first settlers to this country came here for religious freedom. You now advocate for what you call “women’s health”, but call it what it is…government subsidized promiscuity.

    • Joel Mathis

      “Government subsidized promiscuity.” That phrase reveals more about you than about the topic we’re discussing, Bill, not least since there are plenty of married women in monogamous relationships who use birth control. More fun to get angry at sluts, though, I suppose.

      Am I a hypocrite? Maybe. I think I acknowledge the problems and the contradictions. I don’t try to pretend anything is other than what it is. I just reach a different conclusion than you.

      • TheNate

        Even if the “promiscuity” is subsidized, aren’t women free not to have sex? Shouldn’t we respect them enough to make their own decisions? And if not, should we respect men enough to be careful about where they … no, let’s just respect women here.

    • Diane Stopyra

      Of course it’s about women’s health. The pill is used to treat female triad syndrome (common among young female athletes), premature osteoporosis and other bone density issues, PMDD, polysystic ovary syndrome, endometriosis, and hormonal imbalances… some of which can lead to infertility. Great article, Joel, as usual.

      • Kristin

        Just to clarify, the requirement is about more than the pill. The legislation requires coverage for all forms of FDA approved contraceptive methods – which includes the pill, implants, diaphragms, tubal ligation, etc.

    • david bowen

      Listen up,Billy boy,Religious freedom is one thing. Imposing your belief on others is something else,which is what Hobby Lobby is trying to do. By the way,birth control is our number one weapon against abortion. No unplanned or unwanted pregnancies.no need for abortion DUH!! You can’t have it both ways redneck. As for abstinence only,get your head out of the sand. It denies homan nature,and it does not work. If your photo is any example,how many kids do you have running around that you’re not supporting,because your ego will not let you use a condom?

  • Jack Cotter

    Great point on Mennonites and Quakers paying taxes that go to the world’s biggest military. Pacifism is a fundamental tenet of the religions, they were both very much around Philadelphia while the constitution was being written, and yet, no exemption.

    • TheNate

      It’s like, “Render unto Caesar’s what is Caesar’s,” am I right?

  • Coleen McCrea Katz

    Wrong. The corporation has been deemed to have the same rights as a person. This was declared just this past year by the Supreme Court. So, if the corporation is a “person” (something I disagree with by the way) then that “person” has the same right to a religious exemption as any other “person”.

    • TheNate

      But people don’t have the right to exemption from payments due to religion. That was the point of the Mennonite anecdote.