Commentary Health Systems

Religious Freedom? Let the Chimes of Freedom Ring

Lon Newman

Those of us who revere the constitution and the individual right to exercise freedom of religion enabled by the separation of church and state must stop the mass media procession that is now engaged in a responsive reading from the archbishop’s hymnal. These sounds you hear are not the chimes of freedom.

See all our coverage of the 2012 Contraceptive Mandate here.

The US Conference of Catholic bishops (USCCB) are incensed at the decision by the Obama administration to guarantee that the preventive health care benefit package in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) includes contraceptive care. In a USCCB video, Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, the former Archbishop of Milwaukee, wags an index finger as he invokes religious freedom protected by the “very first amendment.” The archbishop calls upon his flock to contact their elected officials and let them know that “religious liberty must be restored.”

Under a cloak of reverence for religious freedom, the bishops say reproductive health care must be denied.  As do the rights to millions of American women, millions of people of other religious faiths, and even to millions of American Catholics – most of whom disagree with the archbishop.

Before we ask President Obama to reverse his administration’s decision, there are some troubling questions we should ask the bishops and ourselves lest we destroy religious freedom in the name of preserving it:

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  • A patient who takes birth control pills, under the USCCB’s code of conscience, with the intention of preventing pregnancy commits a sin. If that same patient takes the same prescription for another health purpose, it is permissible. Is there any way that respects a patient’s right to privacy that also enables insurance companies and employers to deny birth control pills to prevent pregnancy while it permits them for regulation of menstrual cycles?
  • In Wisconsin, we have a Medicaid family planning to prevent unintended pregnancy. It has been very successful. It saves taxpayer dollars by reducing unwanted pregnancies and abortions among participants. Medicaid payment records show that many Catholic hospitals, clinics, physicians, and pharmacists are participating in the program.  These institutions provide birth control services and receive public insurance (tax) dollars in payment. There is no reason for the bishops to wait to exercise their conscience “rights.” They could stop accepting payment for family planning services now. Why wait?  
  • Many people of sincere faith disapprove of childhood immunizations even though they are, like family planning, on the top ten list of major public health benefits.  Under the religious exemption based on an employer’s conscience that the USCCB is asking for, an employer with a conscientious objection to immunization might deny its employees’ children insurance coverage for measles, mumps, polio, Pertussis, and rubella vaccines.  What would be the public health impact on children when so many are not immunized?
  • Many Catholic employers throughout the country have family planning and birth control coverage in their insurance policies right now. Is there a reason to wait for ACA permission to exclude contraceptive care from the insurance coverage of their employees? If the bishops implement the limits on insurance coverage they are asking for in their own clinics and hospitals and pharmacies — which even though they haven’t, they say they must — will these employees continue to provide birth control and family planning services to patients and receive insurance reimbursement while they no longer have insurance coverage for that care themselves? Will employees be forced to seek out non-sectarian health care and pay for it out-of-pocket?  
  • In Cardinal-designate Dolan’s former diocese, there is a nettlesome question of who is an employee of the archdiocese and who is not. Today, diocesan attorneys will argue that sexual assault claims against priests working in diocesan religious orders should be thrown out because the priests were not employees. The bishops need to clarify how they are accountable and responsible for the sexual health and morality of the employees of these separately-incorporated religious affiliates – until they engage in criminal sexual behavior.

Those of us who revere the constitution and the individual right to exercise freedom of religion enabled by the separation of church and state must stop the mass media procession that is now engaged in a responsive reading from the archbishop’s hymnal. These sounds you hear are not the chimes of freedom.

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