By now everyone knows about the Obama administration’s decision to require all employers, including religious ones like Catholic hospitals, schools, and charities (though not houses of worship), to include in their employee health insurance plans abortion-inducing drugs, sterilizations, and contraception. Everyone knows too about the entirely justified outrage of the Catholic bishops and other religious leaders at this gross invasion of religious freedom.
Of course, some people have argued that the real story here is not about religious freedom but the ever-expanding role of government. Thus, Daniel Henninger argues that the Catholic Church is merely feeling the kind of intrusive government regulation that businesses, doctors, schools and others feel all the time. I think this is right too.
There is, however, another point here, intermediate between the religious-freedom point and the big-government point, and it is one that the Catholic bishops ought to care about. Thus far, the bishops have argued that, since the Church believes that abortion, sterilization, and contraception are morally wrong, it is wrong for the government to force the Church’s institutions to fund such things through its health insurance plans. By what logic, however, does the Church restrict this argument to just religious institutions? If these practices are morally wrong in the way the Church clearly says they are, how may the government force any employer who objects to them to funding them? Do the Catholic bishops believe that the government may legitimately compel people do wrong, unless such people are religious institutions? If the board of directors of an S&P 500 company, or an entrepreneur with a small business, decides that the company’s health insurance plans ought not cover abortion-inducing drugs, sterilizations and contraception, does the government have a right to compel that company to include such things in its health plans nonetheless? It’s hard to see how any consistent Catholic can say this. If an action is wrong, compelling someone to do that action is wrong too, no matter who the person subject to the compulsion might be.
It is no doubt politically astute for the Catholic bishops to frame this issue as one of religious freedom; they already seem to gaining traction by doing so. Moreover, an across-the-board exception for anyone objecting to the government mandate may well be politically unattainable, and if so, it may be imprudent to argue for such an exception. But that doesn’t change the moral principle at stake. By framing the issue in the way they have, the bishops have made the issue seem like one of religious freedom peculiar to religious institutions. The real issue, from a philosophical point of view, is one of freedom of conscience applicable to all persons and all institutions.