Even such liberal stalwarts as E.J. Dionne and Michael Sean Winters can be heard to complain about the Obama administration’s HHS mandate that all employers–including all religious institutions but the most narrowly defined ones–include fully paid coverage for contraceptives (including abortifacient drugs) and sterilization in their employee health plans. But let it not be said that President Obama and Secretary Sebelius are entirely without their defenders, even among those who call themselves Catholics.
Here is Joan Vennocchi, for instance, a liberal columnist for the Boston Globe:
The president should be ready for the fight, knowing that on this one he is right.
At Sunday Mass, Catholic parishioners across the country were read letters denouncing the Obama administration’s recent decision to require religiously affiliated hospitals, colleges, and charities to offer health insurance coverage to employees for contraception and the “morning-after pill.’’ On Monday, Rubio, a Republican star who is often mentioned as a VP candidate, introduced a bill that would override the Obama policy by allowing religious institutions that morally oppose contraception to refuse to cover it.
But not all employees of Catholic institutions are Catholics. Why should their employers impose their religious beliefs on them and deny coverage for birth control and other medical care? As long as those Catholic institutions are getting taxpayer money, they should follow secular rules. That’s the Obama administration’s argument, and it makes sense.
Vennocchi has, shall we say, her own way with facts. (Later in the column she claims that “in 2004, many bishops made an issue out of John Kerry’s abortion rights support by threatening to deny communion to the Catholic Democratic presidential nominee.” In truth, there only two or three bishops, out of hundreds in the country, who spoke out in ways that could be so interpreted.) She has her own way with legal reasoning too, not to mention logic. Let it be stipulated that many Catholic institutions “are getting taxpayer money.” But it is a well-established legal principle that the government cannot condition the receipt of federal funds on the surrender of the recipients’ constitutional rights.
As for Catholic institutions “imposing their religious beliefs” on employees who do not share them? Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but in this context, in which the employer is the one who is to pay for the relevant “preventive services” under health insurance, it is precisely the employer’s beliefs that must prevail, or it will be directly complicit in acts it finds a moral abomination according to the tenets of the faith. If an employee who views the matter otherwise wants to buy his or her own coverage for such services, that choice imposes no moral norm on anyone else. But when the government dictates that, for the sake of some (so far hypothetical) employees who “need” such “preventive services,” the employer will be out of pocket for the provision of services it holds to be moral abominations–well, surely even Ms. Vennocchi can see what’s going on. And when the moral judgment is a matter of faith and doctrine, the conclusion that the religious freedom of such an institution is infringed is inescapable.
Similarly obtuse is Katha Pollitt of the Nation, who at least has the excuse of describing herself as “an atheist, a feminist, a progressive” (three strikes and you’re out, Katha). She writes:
Why should the bishops be exempt from the costs of living in a pluralistic society? [USCCB's Sister Mary Ann] Walsh cites the Amish, who are exempt from buying health insurance because they have a conscientious objection to it, but the Amish are a self-isolated band of would-be nineteenth-century farmers; they don’t try to make others read by kerosene lamps or demand the government subsidize their buggies. The Catholic church, by contrast, runs institutions that employ, teach and care for millions of people, for which it gets oceans of public money.
Again the same error. Evidently these ladies of the left believe that if religious institutions “employ, teach and care for millions of people” (which costs them plenty, mind you), the receipt of the merest nickel–the principle is the same, “oceans of public money” or just a small puddle, it makes no difference–is enough to bring the freedom of the church crashing down, subordinated utterly to the will of the government. And if they got no public money at all, these hospitals, charities, and schools? Vennocchi and Pollitt would find some other reason why the authority of government prevails over the consciences of the faithful.
And you thought “liberal” meant “lover of liberty.”