Editorial: Single Prayer System?

In this contentious election season, some loud voices are trying to take us back 50 years to the days when legislatures routinely told Americans how they could behave in the privacy of their own bedrooms. Moreover, they’re doing it in the guise of First Amendment religious freedom, and by doing so turn the issue of foisting religious values on others squarely on its head.

The Roman Catholic Church and a variety of other voices objected to a federal rule that would require many faith-based organizations that don’t have a mission or practice directed primarily to their own flock to offer contraceptives under their insurance plans without a deductible. While places such as churches, synagogues and day schools that serve the particular religion’s members are exempt, those institutions that have a broader reach-colleges and universities, medical and health facilities-would be covered.

Never mind that a majority of states has had such a mandate in place without much noise at all. During the current political campaign, the administration of President Barack Obama has faced a firestorm from all directions. Those on the right condemned the new rule, and some of their counterparts on the left accused the government of caving when the feds adopted a compromise that would still require coverage, but shift the responsibility away from the religious group itself and to the insurance company providing the medical plan.

Yet this revised rule was not adequate for either the Church or some who want to couch the issue as one pitting religion versus secularism. This is terribly unfortunate, for not only is it an errant characterization, but it leads to dangerous conclusions that could threaten both reproductive and religious freedom for several reasons.

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Many religiously based institutions have tremendous outreach to the general populace and derive substantial economic benefit from that scope. Some estimates, for instance, suggest that as many as one in six Americans has received health care from a Catholic-based medical facility. Additionally, a number of religiously based schools, especially in the higher education world, succeed by welcoming students, not to mention employees, from a variety of faiths, or from no faith at all.

Without the new rule, if you are, say, an employee of a college, university or health care institution that objects to providing contraceptive care, and your only access to an affordable health plan is at your place of employment, you could be sorely out of luck. This is not a phantom or extreme case; in many communities, a religiously based health care facility may be a common place to work.

But wait, you say; can’t I just go out and procure birth control on my own? Well, of course you can, on the open market, for several hundred dollars a year. Sadly, however, this may be a difference that precludes care. The nonprofit Guttmacher Institute, which studies sexual health, has conducted surveys showing that women of limited means may cut down on or forego effective contraception due to a lack of affordability.

Opponents of the federal rules are utilizing religion as a sword to impose their own religiosity on others much moreso than as a protective shield. Indeed, some objectors to the rule have even been advocates for new federal laws that would allow individuals to object to otherwise medically mandated care on grounds of religious conscientiousness.

This approach is perilous, as Nicholas Kristof suggested in Saturday’s New York Times: “Do we really want to make accommodations across the range of faith? What if organizations affiliated with Jehovah’s Witnesses insisted on health insurance that did not cover blood transfusions? What if ultraconservative Muslim or Jewish organizations objected to health care except at sex-segregated clinics?”

Religious dogma does not and cannot always trump public policy, as authorities no less than the United States Supreme Court have stated. Effective policy is typically a response to actual societal practices, and Guttmacher’s studies show that despite church mandates to the contrary, close to 100 percent of American women who had recently engaged in sex (including Catholics) utilized birth control. While this data does not undercut the right of an institution to advocate its own belief system, neither does it make a persuasive case to trump a health care rule that applies to practices well outside a religion’s core practices.

Some voices in the Jewish community have objected to the rules as an unwarranted intrusion into religious groups’ belief systems. We disagree. We believe the exemptions for purely religious practices are sound, and we believe that making contraception universally available and affordable is a sound public policy decision. The compromise rule in particular demonstrates respect for religious belief and institutions, while taking a significant step in favor of reproductive rights and health.