Thursday, February 09, 2012

Separation of Church and State For Real

I want to remind you, dear reader, that I'm an ordained Interfaith Minister of Spiritual Counseling.  It is most particularly in this capacity that I'm deeply troubled by the increasing lack of separation of Church and State.  One’s personal faith, or lack of it, legally and, yes, morally, should have no place in how government or business operate.  Religious fundamentalists, whose political influence is extensive and disturbing, would have citizens and government believe otherwise.  They are legally and, yes, morally, wrong.

Nonetheless, recent presidential elections – most starkly in 2000, but it’s been going on for longer than that – have taken on a dangerous and onerous religious undertone, overtone and shocking role as a necessity in a candidate’s persona and policies.  Regrettably, there is little genuine understanding (by politicians, the public and the press) about the Constitutional proviso for “Separation of Church and State.”

It is ironic that during the 1960 presidential campaign, there was wholesale concern that John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism would play an inappropriately active role in his governmental leadership.  Now, the pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction, there is wholesale concern that a leader who does not bring strong personal religious belief to the political table will lead us straight to hell.  How times do change…

This week, President Obama announced that all employer-provided health insurance plans had to pay-in-full for women’s contraception, including those plans offered by secular institutions administered by religious organizations – including the very rich and politically powerful Catholic Church, with its many universities, hospitals and charities.  The Church,  the Republicans, and some members of the media (including a few on the Left) responded as if the President had just ordered the slaughter of all first-born male babies.  The Democrats and others who are presumably Left of Conservative Everything, have, as unfortunately usual, done nothing to present a cohesive rejoinder.

Here is what the First Amendment of the Constitution says about religious freedom: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof (the remainder details all that pesky free speech and free press stuff).  President Obama’s regulation regarding the limits and responsibilities of religious employers who provide health care coverage does nothing that breaks this law.

There is a great piece in today’s New York Times Online “Opinionator” section by Linda Greenhouse entitled “Whose Conscience?” that I earnestly hope you’ll take a look at, since she covers more legal ground and cogent observations than I have room for here.  Suffice it to say, however, that this latest brouhaha over the relationship between government and religion and its impact on all citizens (regardless of their religion or lack of it) brings into uncomfortable relief the fact that there has been far too much overlap for far too long.

As Ms. Greenhouse points out: “The regulation doesn’t require anyone to use birth control.  It exempts any religious employer that primarily hires and serves its own faithful, the same exclusion offered by New York and California from the contraception mandate in state insurance laws…  Permitting Catholic hospitals to withhold contraception coverage from their 765,000 employees would blow a gaping hole in the regulation.  The 629-hospital Catholic health care system is a major and respected health care provider, serving one in every six hospital patients and employing nearly 14 percent of all hospital staff in the country…  These institutions, as well as Catholic universities – not seminaries, but colleges and universities whose doors are open to all – are full participants in the public square…”  In other words, when the Church ventures into the public secular arena, it is obliged to play by public secular rules.

Let’s forget for a moment that numerous statistical sources show that 98% of sexually-active American Catholic women have used contraception at some point in their reproductive lives.  The larger point is that until now, the same insurance companies that routinely pay for men’s erectile dysfunction medication do not pay for women’s contraception, a disconnect that would be laughable if it weren’t so serious and downright discriminatory.

The fact is, all women who want contraception, regardless of the religious strictures of their employers, should be able to get it free of charge.  The alternative is an $800-$1200 out-of-pocket annual expense that is an extreme hardship for many women and therefore a clear path to more unwanted pregnancies and more abortions.  How Church or State can justify this is beyond me.

1 comment:

Doug Indeap said...

Questions about the government requiring or prohibiting something that conflicts with someone’s faith are entirely real, but not new. The courts have occasionally confronted such issues and have generally ruled that the government cannot enact laws specifically aimed at a particular religion (which would be regarded a constraint on religious liberty contrary to the First Amendment), but can enact laws generally applicable to everyone or at least broad classes of people (e.g., laws concerning pollution, contracts, fraud, negligence, crimes, discrimination, employment, etc.) and can require everyone, including those who may object on religious grounds, to abide by them. Were it otherwise and people could opt out of this or that law with the excuse that their religion requires or allows it, the government and the rule of law could hardly operate. When moral binds for individuals can be anticipated, provisions may be added to laws affording some relief to conscientious objectors.

Here, there is no need for such an exemption, since no employer is being "forced," as some commentators rage, to act contrary to his or her belief. In keeping with the law, those with conscientious objections to providing their employees with qualifying health plans may decline to provide their employees with any health plans and pay an assessment instead or, alternatively, provide their employees with health plans that do not qualify (e.g., ones without provisions they deem objectionable) and pay lower assessments.

The employers may not like paying the assessments or what the government will do with the money it receives. But that is not a moral dilemma of the sort supposed by many commentators, but rather a garden-variety gripe common to most taxpayers--who don't much like paying taxes and who object to this or that action of the government. That is hardly call for a special "exemption" from the law. Should each of us feel free to deduct from our taxes the portion that we figure would be spent on those actions (e.g., wars, health care, whatever) each of us opposes?