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I thought I would point out two recent articles that articulate a problem regarding religious liberty—and its expression in terms of certain communal institutions of civil society—in relation to the state (or at least a certain understanding of what the purposes of state are or ought to be).

This issue has become pressing given the well publicized health insurance mandate whereby religious educational institutions would be required to make specific kinds of insurance available to their employees and/or students under the health care law. It seems that the mandate would require those institutions to provide insurance that may contradict their own religious teaching and conviction.

A particular instance of this issue was reported on in today’s NYTimes regarding whether or not the insurance that Fordham offers its students ought to cover contraception costs.

On Sunday, Ross Douthat made the case that the modern “liberal communitarian” argument which advocates strong state action for the sake of the common good has the potential of crowding out “alternative expressions of community . . . that seek to serve the common good.”

Today, over at NRO Yuval Levin makes a related case as follows:

“Does civil society consist of a set of institutions that help the government achieve its purposes as it defines them when their doing so might be more efficient or convenient than the state’s doing so itself, or does civil society consist of an assortment of efforts by citizens to band together in pursuit of mutual aims and goods as they understand them? Is [civil society] an extension of the state or of the community? In this arena, as in a great many others, the administration is clearly determined to see civil society as merely an extension of the state, and to clear out civil society—clearing out the mediating layers between the individual and the state—when it seems to stand in the way of achieving the president’s agenda. The idea is to leave as few non-individual players as possible in the private sphere, and to turn those few that are left into agents of the government.”

Levin argues that “conscience exemptions” ought to be utilized to combat this trend. However, he also says that, of itself, the language of conscience might be insufficient to protect a robust conception of liberty for our religious institutions of civil society from the intrusions of state superintendence.

One might also add that the language of “exemption” is inadequate, in that an exemption granted by the government—in other words, the granting of a special right—could  just as easily be given as taken away. Of course, Santorum reminded the audience of this issue during his discourse on the Declaration of Independence in last week’s debate.

Update: Newt has picked up on this idea of the individual right to the liberty of religious conscience in an attack on restrictions similar to those of Obamacare which resulted from Romney’s Massachusetts health care act. However, Newt hasn’t quite explained the issue in terms of the role of the institutions of civil society and their importance to the sustainability of religious liberty as Ross and Yuval have done.

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