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Freedom of Religion: A Reconsideration

by Jonathan Green | Kenyon College

F Posted in: News and Politics, Voices P Posted on: February 21, 2012
Jonathan Green Jonathan Green

For a large percentage of those who argue against the Obama administration’s new rule on insurance coverage for contraceptives, conscientious objection to Constitutionally-protected rights takes priority over the rights themselves. Even after the Obama administration revised its rule to pass the ‘birth control coverage’ requirement on to insurance companies, alleviating religious hospitals and universities from the direct responsibility to provide access, conservatives continued to cry foul. Their aim? “Conscience clauses” that would allow for anyone to ignore the requirements if they object on religious grounds.

However, since health insurance is a secular product in a secular market, religious hospitals and universities are no different from non-religious employers when it comes to making such purchases. When Catholic institutions deny employees coverage for contraception that is available to everyone else, they impose religious values on a secular transaction and therefore deny First Amendment rights to those who don’t ascribe to their employer’s values.

Opponents of the rule are right in saying that this debate is not about convenient access to preventing pregnancy. For starters, 58% of women who use contraceptives use them at least in part for reasons unrelated to birth control. It’s also not about the Catholic faith, as 98% of sexually active Catholics (99% for all sexually active adults) have used contraceptives at some time or another, and 61% of Catholics supported the rule in a recent CBS/New York Times poll.

What this debate is really about is what responsibilities belong to a religious institution that performs state-sanctioned activities. While opponents of the rule argue that guaranteeing insurance coverage for contraception is preventing free exercise of religion, denying coverage for contraception is imposing religious practice on those who would not freely do so otherwise. Mandating that insurance coverage for contraception be granted for everyone who wants it is not keeping anyone from going to church, but denying non-religious employees access to contraception for religious reasons is imposing religious values on people who do not share them.

If a science teacher believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible, they are still required to teach evolution in publicly funded biology classes. The teacher is entitled to their beliefs, but when they enter the classroom, they are agents of the state and the scientific community, not of themselves. As much as their conscience dictates otherwise, they are not allowed to teach their own curriculum.

Since there is nothing religious about insurance in the same way that there is nothing religious about biology class, religious conscientious objection cannot be considered a legitimate response to this state action. The employers that act as the middle-men between employees and health insurance companies are entitled to their religious beliefs, but if they intend to act as agents of the state or the medical establishment, they forfeit their right to deny access to particular types of healthcare based on those religious beliefs. They are no different than any other employer when they provide health insurance to their employees. They are allowed to disagree, but they are not allowed to deny or prevent.

The obvious counter here is that when an employee agrees to work for an institution they then act as an agent of that institution. However, this is true only to the extent that the employee’s actions are relevant to their job. What the science teacher teaches in class is extremely relevant to his function as a science teacher; whether or not a professor at a college uses contraception has no effect on her ability to teach.

It is also important to note that health insurance extends beyond work hours. While the religious teacher mentioned above is only constrained in his religious beliefs while he is teaching, someone denied access to contraception is constrained based on their employers’ religious beliefs even when they are not at work. Because of this, employees who do not wish to have the Catholic Church’s values imposed on them are having their religious rights infringed upon 24/7.

Just because a person, locality, or state doesn’t like certain choices, lifestyles, or sexualities different from their own does not mean that they can invoke religion to prevent such activities from occurring. There are plenty of progressives who object to war and the death penalty – many who object on religious grounds – who are not allowed to nullify such government actions by withholding the portion of their income taxes that go toward such endeavors. When you enter into a society, you do not necessarily agree with 100% of the decisions it makes, but a disagreement doesn’t amount to a fundamental violation of rights. In addition, claiming that it does as a means to get your way denies such rights to others. In this manner, using religion as a crutch to restrict the religious freedom of women is the real violation of Constitutional rights.

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religious expression, but religious expression does not exist in a vacuum; religious action has effects on people outside of the religious establishment. There are currently many women who do not have access to contraception they want – and, in some cases, need – simply because certain religious institutions don’t agree with their decision. While everyone is entitled to their religious beliefs, people who use contraceptives have religious beliefs of their own.

This debate unfolded under the premise that only those who object to the use of contraception could have their religious freedom violated; I reject such a premise. The status quo was the real violation of religious liberty because it allowed religious employers to impose religious values on employees who do not share those values. Catholic hospitals and universities provide health insurance to many non-Catholic doctors, professors, nurses, security officers, administrators, and janitors. As referenced above, most of those employees will at some point want access to contraceptives, as is their Constitutional right. Denying this right is to define freedom of religion as freedom of one particular type of religion. I’m quite certain that’s not what the term means.

Jonathan Green Jonathan Green Jon Green is a sophomore political science major at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. He is also the Co-Editor-In-Chief of Kenyon's political journal, the Kenyon Observer.

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