Although it hasn’t made the front pages in a while, the arguments between the Church and the government about contraception are still going strong.
On Monday, the University of Notre Dame filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration, claiming that their religious liberties are being violated. The alleged “violation” stems from the Health and Human Services mandate that requires full women’s health care coverage (including contraception) for employees and students at religiously-affiliated institutions, including educational institutions such as Notre Dame. This action by Notre Dame is part of a wider legal effort that has seen similar lawsuits filed in eight states so far, on behalf of dioceses and health care organizations wishing to claim exemption from the provisions of the mandate. In a letter explaining the decision to pursue the lawsuit, Notre Dame president Father John Jenkins wrote,
“This filing is about the freedom of a religious organization to live its mission…if one Presidential Administration can override our religious purpose and use religious organizations to advance policies that undercut our values, then surely another Administration will do the same for another very different set of policies, each time invoking some concept of popular will or the public good, with the result these religious organizations become mere tools for the exercise of government power, morally subservient to the state, and not free from its infringements.”
Alright, let’s review, shall we?
When Notre Dame (or any organization affiliated with the Church) is asked to comply with a mandate that is meant to ensure equal access to health care coverage for its students and employees – many of whom are not Catholic – there is pushback, on the grounds that the administration is overstepping its boundaries. This, as we are being reminded, is about religious liberties. The Church wishes to be free of the “infringements” of the government, and claims that compliance with the mandate would make them “morally subservient to the state”. But what Notre Dame wants is for the non-Catholic members of their staff and student body to become “morally subservient” to them. And in a nation where rights and protections are granted based on the U.S. Constitution, and not the Bible, that should not be allowed to happen.
Notre Dame’s assertion that the mandate would “advance policies that undercut our values” and rob them of the freedom to “live its mission” is ridiculous. Should contraception become part of the benefits available to students and employees, it would change absolutely nothing in terms of the way that Notre Dame “live[s] its mission”. Father Jenkins, in the same letter that is quoted above, also writes this:
“Many of our faculty, staff and students — both Catholic and non-Catholic — have made conscientious decisions to use contraceptives. As we assert the right to follow our conscience, we respect their right to follow theirs.”
In other words, the moral scenario that would allegedly ensue under the new mandate already exists at Notre Dame. The school is already complicit in the use of contraception by acknowledging and allowing its use by those who work or attend classes there.
Some have argued that it’s one thing to allow people to use birth control, but it’s another thing to ask a religious institution to pay for it. Again, this is a bogus argument when it is looked at in detail. There isn’t a great deal of ethical difference between a Notre Dame employee using some of her paycheck to buy contraception, versus having it provided as part of her health care benefits. The money is all coming from the same source and ending up in the same place, regardless of what path it may take to get there. And in the case of student health care, the situation is even more clear cut. Students pay for their own insurance at Notre Dame. The policy that is offered to students is provided by Aetna and is “school-sponsored”, meaning that the school endorses it, but it is not paid for by the school itself. If the policy were to include contraceptive coverage, it would still be the student or the student’s family paying for that coverage, not the school. Therefore, should they choose to simply honor the mandate, Notre Dame would be no further on the moral hook for contraceptive use than they already are.
The same holds true for any other school, hospital, or business that is affiliated with the Catholic Church, or any religious entity. Ultimately, if they serve the general public, hire members of the general public, and receive public funding of any kind, they have an obligation to observe governmental provisions that are intended to ensure equal access to heath care for the general public. This is not going to undermine the moral authority of any church, anywhere. All it will do is prevent churches from asserting their moral authority over those who are not church members themselves. This is as it should be in a country where the First Amendment protects both freedom of religion, and freedom from religion, for every American citizen.