Religious Freedom? Let the Chimes of Freedom Ring

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:

  • 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.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

For more information or to schedule an interview with contact

  • waterjoe

    Very little of this post addresses the question of religious liberty.  What the post does provide is a list of weak allegations, mostly unrelated to the issue.

    Taking them in order:

    (1) Actually, many insurance companies do it now and many more did it in past.  As with all insurance matters, there is no right to privacy between the insurer and the patient.  The insurer has a right to know the reason for the prescription to determine whether it falls under a covered service.

    (2) Irrelevant unless you can show that the Catholic hospitals and clinics are engaging in those services covered under the program that are contrary to Catholic teaching.  Even if you did, then you would have to show that bishops knew of that violation.  Even if that were shown, you have only shown “wrongdoing” by the Catholic hospital or acceptance by the bishop, not that providing the acts is acceptable under Catholic teaching.

    (3) If you want to know, look around.  Just about every state allows parents to opt-out of immunizations for religious reasons.  Moreover, necessary vaccinations are heavily subsidized by the government now so that children do not need to rely on the availability of insurance.

    (4) First, the link you provided does not say anything about how many Catholic employers now have birth control coverage in their policies.  Second, assuming it did, there is a big difference between having no choice to cover it because of the market and being forced to cover it because of a government mandate.  Third, the rest of paragraph again alleges that Catholic hospitals provide contraception, something you have not established as true.

    (5) First, it is not about the bishops’ employees.  It is about the other religious entities out there.  Second, priests are not employees of a bishop.  That is a matter of canon law and was always the case before the clergy abuse scandal.  In any event, it is irrelevant since, as noted, it is not about the bishops’ employees.

  • lon-newman

    Thank you for a thoughtful and careful reply.  I’m happy to respond in that way.

    On the main thrust, I want to say as clearly as I can that the constitution protects the rights of individuals to religious liberty and to privacy.  There is no constitutional protection for the rather abstract right of institutions to exercise their rights of ‘conscience’.  Most importantly, it is infringement of rights to religious freedom and to privacy by the government and by institutions that the constitution protects the individual against.

    1) patient information to insurance companies is under a voluntary contract that the patient has entered into, I agree. The point I tried to make is that the employer seems to be imposing restrictions that are invasions of patient privacy based, not on medical standards or best evidence, or patient need or choice, but on “institutional religious beliefs”.

    2) Catholic hospitals, clinics, physicians, and pharmacists are engaging in these services because reimbursement records from the Medicaid program show reimbursement for those services.  The alternative would be that providers are billing for services they are not providing.

    3) I meant to offer an example of jeopardizing public health and children’s health for inappropriate reasons.

    4) There is no reasonable dispute – contraceptive coverage is law in Wisconsin now.

    5) The point is that the bishops can make fine distinctions to distance themselves from responsibility for the criminal behavior of priests in their parishes, but seem to be unwilling to make these kinds of distinctions for employee health care in even less directly affiliated institutions.