The Obama Administration’s refusal to allow Christian extremists to deny birth control coverage to their employees is being sold as an assault on religious liberty. In fact, the opposite is true. The president is preserving religious freedom for all Americans, and no one should be happier about his actions than believers.
The Catholics and white evangelicals are correct when they say that America is founded on freedom of religion. It’s right there in the First Amendment to the Constitution. (LINK) Unfortunately for them, it’s also the downfall of any attempt to put their own religious beliefs above anyone else’s. In plain English, here’s how it works:
- Catholics are free to believe that Baby Jesus hates contraception.
- Catholics are also free to believe that Baby Jesus loves contraception. (And some most certainly do.)
- Everyone is free to be Catholic.
- Everyone is free NOT to be Catholic.
This is the essence of religious freedom. Everyone in America is guaranteed the right to believe and practice any religion they want so long as breaking laws is not part of that religious belief. That is, one cannot commit murder and get away with it by claiming it’s part of their religion to murder. Well… unless, of course, one is murdering one’s own baby by refusing it medical care… but that’s another story, and some religious extremists would like to claim this exemption.
The whole point of allowing religious freedom is to prevent anyone, no matter how popular, from dictating which religion anyone else must follow. It is not flippant to say that some Catholics believe Jesus is okay with contraception. (LINK) When the rubber hits the road (was that a pun?) it turns out that more than half of American Catholics believe you can be a good Christian and use birth control. As many as 98% go ahead and use it even if they believe it makes them bad. (LINK)
That last little nugget is very important: In America, if we choose to be Catholic, we have the right to be bad Catholics. Religious participation is entirely voluntary at every step of the way. No religious organization has the right to force us to remain in their fold, nor do they acquire the right to take away any of our rights just because we take a dunk in their pool or drop a dollar in the collection plate. As an American I can attend church every week while committing every sin in the book on a regular basis and feeling no remorse.
Thus it becomes clear. By opposing Obama’s contraception mandate, the religious are actually lobbying against freedom of religion. The belief that contraception is immoral is just that — a religious belief. Catholics and evangelicals are happy to admit this. They want the right to force employees to act on this belief, and this is a violation of their employees’ right to believe it’s okay for them to be bad Catholics or Evangelicals. Preventing them from practicing sin is nothing less than denying them religious freedom!
This is the Achilles Heel of the entire “Morality Movement” in government. Since the merging of the Religious Right with the Political Right in the 1970s, the sectarian screeching reaches a crescendo every election year. It’s gay marriage, or it’s abortion, or it’s contraception. And each and every election year, there is still a fundamental flaw in the program. Legislating even one religious ideal is a grotesque violation of the Constitution’s guarantee that each and every person is free to believe anything they want about God. Just as it is Rick Santorum’s right to believe that God hates contraception, it is my right to believe that God is a hippy liberal environmentalist who loves it. And both of us are guaranteed the right to free exercise of those beliefs.
Unfortunately, this is where Obama may have inadvertantly crossed a dangerous line in his compromise. By allowing the exemption for religious employers and putting the burden on insurance companies, he has set the precedent that we may, in fact, grant religions the power to restrict their employees’ freedom of religion. Granted, this exemption is empty, and puts no actual restrictions on anyone, but it need not be so for other cases. In a sane world, we can hope that a future Supreme Court ruling will overturn this compromise and tell the churches that they just have to suck it up and play nice like every other employer in the country.
In America, we have freedom of religion. These religious extremists are citing that very freedom while they attempt to dismantle it piece by piece. Each of us, regardless of who we work for, has the right to believe anything we want about our own gods. We can believe they demand contraception, or that they abhor it. The only way this freedom can continue to be extended is if no religious group has the ability to say that their god trumps anyone else’s.