To no one’s surprise, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has rejected President Obama’s compromise that respects both the rights of women to contraception and the religious liberty of employers who are affiliated with religious organizations opposed to birth control. Under the compromise, church-affiliated organizations will not be paying for contraception, and insurance carriers will bear the cost of providing it to women without a co-pay or deductible. The Catholic Health Association and Catholic Charities quickly announced that their concerns had been addressed, and that their religious liberty would not be impaired by the modified rules. Some Republicans such as Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe are similarly satisfied.
Yet the Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as Republican congressional leaders and presidential candidates, are declaring that the compromise is part of a larger war against religious liberty. Senate Republicans are even suggesting that the birth control coverage requirement threatens the religious liberty of employers completely unconnected to religious organizations. But since these forces have so often similarly and wrongly categorized many government policies they disagree with, it is hard to take the claim seriously.
Religious liberty is one of the core protections of the United States Constitution, one whose importance cannot be overstated. And there are times when it may be proper to allow certain religious-based exemptions from generally applicable laws, such as conscientious objector status in a military context. But those are the exceptions, not the rule: We generally do not give people the right to be exempt from laws they disapprove of simply because their disapproval is religiously based.
In the current debate over health insurance, the Conference of Catholic Bishops and its partners use the language of universal religious liberty. But their February 10 news release explaining why they oppose the coverage requirement makes clear that they are making this claim only for the religious liberty of people who share their specific religious beliefs about contraception and abortion:
First, we objected to the rule forcing private health plans — nationwide, by the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen—to cover sterilization and contraception, including drugs that may cause abortion. …
Second, we explained that the mandate would impose a burden of unprecedented reach and severity on the consciences of those who consider such "services" immoral: insurers forced to write policies including this coverage; employers and schools forced to sponsor and subsidize the coverage; and individual employees and students forced to pay premiums for the coverage. We therefore urged HHS, if it insisted on keeping the mandate, to provide a conscience exemption for all of these stakeholders—not just the extremely small subset of "religious employers" that HHS proposed to exempt initially.
Their statement was notably silent about conscience protections for other religious beliefs. They have not been talking about the right of employers from denominations that generally reject modern medical intervention to not provide their employees health insurance at all. Matthew Yglesias asked in a blog post this week if they would rush to the defense of an employer named Abdul Hussain who refused on religious reasons to offer employees health insurance that lets employees visit doctors of the opposite sex. If you really thought the principle of religious liberty was at stake, would you be satisfied with a fix that addresses only your religious beliefs but ignores everyone else’s?
Whether it’s contraception, marriage equality, or abortion, "religious liberty" has too often been used as a feint to disguise an aggressive demand for special rights. Specifically, the radical right regularly demands exemptions for conservative Christians and those who share their beliefs from laws they don’t like.
Even when they promote "conscience" legislation with broad language that seems to be applicable to all religious beliefs, their selectivity in demanding such laws is telling. For instance, the "conscience" provisions in marriage equality legislation are generally expressed in general terms not specific to gays and lesbians’ marriages, but those provisions are only inserted into state law when gays and lesbians are finally allowed to marry. Such provisions were being pushed last year in Maryland, for instance, but when the marriage equality bill failed to pass, self-proclaimed religious liberty proponents on the right made no effort to adopt the conscience provisions that would then have only affected opposite-sex married couples. Nor are right-wing groups loudly demanding such religious liberty provisions in states with DOMA-style laws like Texas, Oklahoma, and Utah. In states like these, where marriage rights for same-sex couples are foreclosed, the right is not demanding the type of "conscience" provisions for groups not providing services to married couples that they demand in states where gays can marry. In cases like these, what they claim is a general religious liberty protection is clearly designed to hurt one group and one group only.
Consider the irony of right-wing groups who crusade against what they call "special rights" for LGBT people demanding statutory exemptions solely for their own particular religious beliefs. Can there be a better example of demanding "special rights?"