By Stephen V. Monsma
An on-going controversy concerns the Obama administration’s attempt to mandate that under the new Affordable Care Act employers’ health insurance plans must include contraceptive coverage. And contraceptive coverage is defined broadly enough to include sterilization procedures and what some consider abortifacients. This has aroused the strong opposition of the Catholic Church—which has long opposed artificial birth control as a violation of its religious beliefs—and some evangelical Protestant groups, largely on the basis of the inclusion of what they consider abortifacients.
Those who oppose the contraceptive mandate are claiming their religious freedom rights are being violated, since the mandate would require them to act in violation of their deeply-held religious beliefs. Others claim that this a public health issue, not a religious freedom issue, since assuring that contraceptives are readily available will protect women from unwanted pregnancies and reduce the number of abortions. As a recent columnist in the New York Times wrote, “[T]he provision of preventive services without a co-pay does not interfere with a religious practice or ceremony.”
This controversy—which has generated much heat and is likely to continue to do so throughout this election year—largely turns on one’s understanding of what constitutes a religious organization or a religious practice. We all cringe at the thought of a government edict telling St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York how it is to celebrate the mass or who may or may not officiate at the mass. We all recognize this would be a violation of the religious freedom rights we all hold dear. The organization in this example (St. Patrick’s Cathedral) is clearly accepted by all as a religious organization and the practice (the celebration of the mass) as a religious practice.
But this agreement breaks down and the controversy explodes when the organization is not a religious congregation in the traditional sense and the practice does not involve a religious ritual or ceremony. What about a nonprofit spouse abuse program that was begun by an evangelical Protestant church, is still largely supported by church members, and explicitly states that it is providing services in obedience to Jesus Christ and in his name? Is it a religious organization? And are the volunteers and staff who counsel with and offer help to women who have been abused and preyed upon engaging in a religious act? Or what about a Catholic college that takes its religious commitment seriously and seeks to understand the world within the context of historic Catholic thought and reflection? Is it a religious organization? And is a professor who seeks to apply Catholic social teaching in her sociology course engaged in a religious act?
As I explain in my book, Pluralism and Freedom: Faith-Based Organizations in a Democratic Society, for historic reasons Americans, and especially the educated elite, tend to exclude as religious organizations and religious practices organizations and practices outside of religious congregations and their core religious rituals and ceremonies. But such a narrow view of religion is untenable. It is inaccurate to say that when the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., led African American demonstrators out of their churches and into the streets in defense of racial justice he changed from a religious leader to a secular leader. An official statement the National Association of Evangelicals testifies to its belief that its faith not only encompasses acts of love and mercy but demands them: “Jesus said that those who do not care for the needy and the imprisoned will depart eternally from the living God.” The nature of religion as extending beyond the confines of church and synagogue was clearly summarized by Robert Bellah and his associates in their classic, Habits of the Heart, when they wrote: “Yet religion, and certainly biblical religion, is concerned with the whole of life—with social, economic, and political matters as well as with private and personal ones.”
To me, this means that when a governmental edict clashes with faith-based organizations’ thought-out, long-held, religiously-based beliefs and practices, our public policies should do all they can to accommodate those beliefs and practices. This is what protects the pluralism and diversity to which we as a society claim to aspire.
Coming back to the current controversy over the contraceptive mandate, this means no church should seek to force its view of contraceptives onto all of society; no government mandate should seek to force faith-based organizations to provide contraceptives in violation of their religious beliefs. Religious liberty and religious freedom rights are indeed at stake here. We as a people have long lived together with our deepest differences by each group respecting those with whom it does not agree and allowing them, to the fullest extent possible in keeping with public health and safety, to follow their beliefs. My book mentioned earlier suggests that we need to renew this commitment and broaden it to include the host of educational, health, and social service faith-based organizations that continue to contribute much to our life together.
About the author:
Stephen V. Monsma is a senior research fellow at the Henry Institute at Calvin College and professor of political science emeritus at Pepperdine University. He is the author of numerous works for faith-based organizations and church and state relations, including Faith, Hope, and Jobs and Putting Faith in Partnerships.