Pragmatism vs. Principle: Contraception and the 1st Amendment

This week the White House offered a compromise to the Roman Catholic church regarding the earlier health care bill’s requirement that all hospitals (including Roman Catholic ones)  be required to provide access to artificial contraceptives to their patients.  The White House compromise was, in effect, to mandate that the insurance companies pay for the contraceptives rather than the church related hospitals.  Predictably, the American Council of Roman Catholic bishops rejected this compromise because it failed to address the fundamental problem of religious liberty. Even the “compromise” failed to understand that religious liberty is not actually intended primarily to protect the budgets or even the teaching of some religious body per se, but the protection of individual believers who refuse to be coerced to participate in something which violates their religious conscience.

It is not a question, fundamentally, of “who pays for the contraceptives” but an actual point of conscience to those who serve in these hospitals (not to mention that quite a few Roman Catholic hospitals are self-insured, and the bill also mandates contraceptives which are abortive).  As I shared in my last blog, Protestants may not agree with the specific position of the Roman Catholic church about contraceptives, but we stand shoulder to shoulder with them on the larger principle of religious liberty.  (As an aside, the reason the Roman Catholics tend to have more specific guidance on matters like birth control, when compared with Protestants is that Roman Catholics, as a rule, tend to see issues from the widest possible lens.  They see the theological relationship between birth control, marriage between a man and a woman, prohibition against abortion etc.. as all part of one issue, whereas Protestants tend to separate issues and tackle each one on its own).

The first amendment to the constitution clearly says that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.  It is this latter clause which is at stake here.  The White House thought a pragmatic solution was all that was required because it would allow the Roman Catholic Church to participate in the program and not “lose face.”  What was not understood was this was not a technical problem which required a technical solution.  To say, “insurers pay, not the hospital” is a technical “solution.”  But, the issue is not technical, it is conceptual.  It has to do with religious liberty.  This is about the first amendment, not merely about who pays for contraceptives.

I will stand with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters just like I did with our Islamic friends when they wanted to build a mosque near the site of 9/11.   Even if you use contraceptives or, like me, you long for the day when Muslims recognize the Lordship of Jesus Christ, that is not the point.  It is a question of religious liberty.  If the government can tell Muslims where they can and cannot build a mosque, or tell Roman Catholics that they must provide contraceptive services, then none of us can expect to enjoy for long the “free exercise of our faith.”