What do contraceptives have to do with religion?
As a liberal Protestant, I see no connection — but that’s beside the point. There are plenty of sincere Catholics and conservative Protestants who believe the use of contraceptives, or at least some types of them, is sinful. That’s reason enough to be careful about any broad government regulations involving birth control.
Religious liberty is a cornerstone of the American way of life, a fundamental principle of the U.S. Constitution. The Founding Fathers were close enough to the bloody religious wars in Europe to try to found a country safe for pluralism, respectful of all religions while requiring none. If there is any such thing as American exceptionalism, freedom of religion is certainly one of its hallmarks.
Still, no Constitutional freedom is limitless. For more than a century, jurists have restricted religious liberties when they interfered with other important values. The Supreme Court did so as early as 1879, when it ruled against polygamy, practiced by some Mormons at the time.
That’s why the U.S. Supreme Court ought to rule against two corporations whose owners are fighting the requirement — a tenet of Obamacare — that employers’ health insurance plans pay for birth control. If businesses are given an exemption from a valid law that serves a useful public purpose because they claim it violates religious beliefs, where would it end?
(I’m leaving it to others to argue the perfectly valid point that corporations don’t have religious beliefs. They are not people. How many corporations have you ever seen sitting in the pews on Sunday?)
There are plenty of businesses and institutions that believe they have the right to fire gays and lesbians because homosexuality violates their religious beliefs. Some religious groups would keep outdated practices toward women, banning them from most high-powered jobs. While many people genuinely believe their God requires that, our civil society puts a premium on promoting equality.
If the two values are in conflict, individuals’ right to equality ought to win out. In a 1993 religious liberties case involving the use of peyote, Justice Antonin Scalia, himself a hyper-conservative Catholic, quoted from an earlier case when he wrote for the majority: “Can a man excuse his practices … because of his religious belief? To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”
The case involving contraception is no different. The government has an overriding interest in ensuring that women’s health care is treated no differently from men’s, and reproductive services are vital. (As President Obama has noted, if men could have babies, contraception would already be a standard provision of all health insurance policies.)
For the record, laws have long been necessary to require health insurers to pay for certain procedures and pharmaceuticals. For example, the Georgia Legislature insisted in that 1990s that insurers pay for breast cancer screenings, which has helped to improve survival rates.
Since contraceptive use would help prevent abortions, religious conservatives ought to be among the most enthusiastic proponents of birth control coverage in health insurance. But one of the companies that opposes the law — Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft-supply stores — is owned by Southern Baptists who believe some forms of birth control, such as intrauterine devices, are tantamount to abortion. The other company involved in the Supreme Court case, Conestoga Wood Specialties, is owned by Mennonites who don’t believe in birth control of any sort.
The Obama administration has rightly compromised over religious objections to birth control mandates, exempting churches and other religious institutions. But corporations are not churches, no matter who owns them. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood should be required to abide by the laws of a modern state.
Otherwise, where would this end? Bigotry operating under the auspices of the Bible could once again become the law of the land.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Photo: Nicholas Eckhart via Flickr