By Alicia Gay, ACLU
Friday’s announcement from President Obama that his administration will modify its policy on contraception insurance coverage to allow religiously affiliated organizations to opt out of paying for contraceptive coverage and instead have insurance companies directly provide coverage should end the recent storm of controversy surrounding the birth control rule. The administration’s actions should lay to rest arguments, primarily lobbed from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the lobbying arm of the Catholic Church, that religious liberty is under attack in this country. A civil debate around health care delivery in the U.S. should resume. All of those things should happen — but time will tell.
Access to affordable birth control is essential for women and their families. Women use contraception to prevent unintended pregnancies, plan their families and protect their health. Virtually every woman of childbearing age — including 98 percent of sexually active Catholics — uses contraception at some point in her life.
For days now, the bishops and some other religious leaders have been claiming that their religious liberty is under attack. Let’s be clear: it isn’t. The bishops have been trying to use their religious beliefs to discriminate against the female employees of religiously-affiliated organizations like universities and hospitals. While everyone has a right to their beliefs, the promise of religious liberty in this country doesn’t create a blanket right to deny critical health care to the female nurses, custodians, and administrators that work for these organizations. While the original policy was constitutional and already in place in many states, this compromise allows women to receive the care they need at an affordable price, while signaling that this administration is open to the concerns of the bishops and others.
But will this be enough to satisfy the bishops and others?
As recently reported by Think Progress, the bishops have strongly suggested that the only “compromise” that would satisfy them is that NO employers should have to pay for birth control for women. Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops defines his idea of a compromise:
“That means removing the provision from the health care law altogether, he said, not simply changing it for Catholic employers and their insurers. He cited the problem that would create for “good Catholic business people who can’t in good conscience cooperate with this.” “If I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell, I’d be covered by the mandate,” Picarello said.
The idea that all employers should have the right to deny health care coverage to employers is out-of-step with public opinion and is unconstitutional. Recent polling shows that a majority of Americans agree that “employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception and birth control at no cost.” Further, the Supreme Court long ago explained that excusing individuals or institutions from neutral and generally applicable laws would devolve into a system “in which each conscience is a law unto itself.”
In coming days, on the talking heads shows and in the press, we fear you will see the bishops and others saying that they don’t even want insurance companies reaching out to their employees about birth control. You may hear them say that people of faith are under attack. But they will be wrong. Real religious freedom gives everyone the right to make personal decisions, including whether and when to use birth control, based on their own beliefs. It doesn’t give one group the right to impose its beliefs on others.