Obamacare’s Awful Choice Between Contraception and Religious Freedom

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


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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.