The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently responded to the concerns of some religious groups and individuals by proposing yet another plan to provide prescription birth control insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Although this HHS initiative respects religious concerns and ensures access to birth control, it received a negative response from the Catholic Bishops, just as the other initiatives had. New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, explained the rejection, saying, “In obedience to our Judeo-Christian heritage, we have consistently taught our people to live their lives during the week to reflect the same beliefs they proclaim on the Sabbath.”
Now, it would be reasonable to come away from these words thinking that all Jews and Christians are of one mind about birth control—that is to say, opposed. On the contrary, many U.S. rabbis and ministers have long recognized the moral wisdom of ensuring wide availability of safe and effective birth control. Beginning in the late 1920s and the ’30s, many Jewish and Protestant groups formally endorsed access, including rabbis from Reform and Conservative Judaism, and ministers from Episcopal, Baptist, Congregational, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches. Clergy came forward with the support of their faith teachings, underscored by their real-life experience. The pastors were invited into the daily and private lives of congregants to witness, first-hand, that the ability to control one’s child-bearing makes for healthier children and mothers and for stronger families and communities. Today, one thing is certain: Differences in religious teachings remain, and no religious group or leader speaks for all of the nation’s faithful about birth control insurance coverage under ACA.
The recent HHS announcement affects employees of religiously-affiliated hospitals and the like; churches, synagogues, and mosques remain exempt. The reality is that these hospitals are not the same as houses of worship that conduct weddings or confirmations. They are not-for-profit businesses serving the larger public with secular services that are not specifically religious, like setting a broken ankle or performing an appendectomy. What’s more, a hospital employs staff from all walks of life, including faithful individuals in our communities whose fully informed moral decision may lead to a conclusion that differs from the faith of an employer. Besides, these workers earn their insurance along with wages and pension. The insurance belongs to the worker; an employer’s religious objection is irrelevant. A woman’s private decision about her birth control has a higher moral standing than her employer’s problem with her using it. And all we are talking about is insurance paperwork passing quietly through a human resources office—no one is being asked to use birth control.
Notably, the ACA’s birth control insurance provisions resemble those of New York state and California. These insurance requirements, tested in the highest courts of those states, were upheld as an equitable accommodation. And, as clergy, we emphasize that imposing a religious teaching about birth control into the private, personal home life of an American is an egregious violation of church-state separation. But all this is not enough to satisfy birth control opponents.
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Arthur A. Cohen’s book, The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition, encouraged a robust dialogue on our religious difference. He argues that the term “Judeo-Christian tradition” represents “a myth which buries under the fine silt of rhetoric the authentic, meaningful, and irrevocable distinction which exists between Jewish belief and Christian belief.” So let’s take Cohen’s advice and recognize that no one religious body or leader represents all Jewish belief—or Christian belief, for that matter. Where religions disagree, policymakers must not play umpire and pick their favorite “team.” Instead, they need to respect the boundary of church-state separation, leave it to the woman to decide about her health care, and ensure her access to the safe and legal preventive medicine she decides she needs.
Cohen calls our religious differences “meaningful.” So let’s ditch the rhetoric, embrace the wonder, grace, and strength of spiritual diversity, and enter a full-hearted and “meaningful” conversation across denominational lines and within religious groups about pressing issues, such as addressing the needs of the poor, the homeless, and immigrants. And let’s take the moral high ground by recognizing that women own their health insurance and deserve protection from the religious objections of others.