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Some More Implications of Religious Liberty

February 29, 2012, 6:42 AM

The Christian right, both Catholics and evangelicals, wants to outlaw birth control. This isn't a new revelation, but in the last few weeks, they've been saying it so often and so loudly that the public is starting to take notice. Of course, they don't have anywhere near the political muscle to actually achieve this - but what they hope to do is make access to contraception as difficult and expensive as possible, effectively putting it out of the reach of millions of people.

As part of their anti-birth-control crusade, the Christian churches have argued that religious employers have a constitutional right not to pay for health insurance plans for their employees that include coverage of contraception. They say that doing otherwise would violate their religious liberty. If that were true, it would suggest a few other hypothetical applications of the principle:

  • I'm a business owner and a Jehovah's Witness, and I believe blood transfusions are against the will of God. Can I insist on my employees having a health insurance plan that doesn't cover transfusions or bone marrow transplants, even in the case of leukemia or serious trauma?
  • I'm a business owner and an Orthodox Jew, and I believe it's a sin to work on the Sabbath except in life-or-death situations. Can I insist on my employees having a health insurance plan that doesn't pay for any non-emergency medical procedure or doctor's visit that takes place on Saturdays?
  • I'm a business owner and a conservative Muslim, and I believe it's wrong for the genders to associate in public. Can I insist on my employees having a health insurance plan that doesn't pay for male patients to be treated by female doctors or vice versa?
  • I'm a business owner and an evangelical Christian, and I believe AIDS is God's punishment for gay people. Can I insist on my employees having a health insurance plan that doesn't cover antiretroviral drugs?
  • I'm a business owner who believes, for religious reasons, that sex outside marriage is a sin. Can I insist on my employees having a health insurance plan that doesn't pay for prenatal care unless the woman is married? If I also believe that divorce is a sin, can I insist on a plan that doesn't pay for prenatal care if the woman is divorced and remarried?
  • I'm a business owner and an atheist, and I think religious belief is a bad idea that should be discouraged. Can I insist on my employees having a health insurance plan that charges $200 a month extra for anyone who regularly attends church, and distribute those fees to my atheist employees in the form of lower premiums?

As absurd and intolerable as all these examples seem, this is what the theocrats are calling for. What they want is a patchwork system where your ability to access health care is at the whim of your employer, who can insert himself into the relationship between you and your doctor and arbitrarily deny you any procedure he doesn't think people should be allowed to have. And to be clear, this doesn't just apply to church-owned institutions: the bishops have been outspoken in their belief that any private business owner should be able to deny any health insurance to employees based on his religious convictions, even if he's just the manager of a Taco Bell. If you think this has more than a faint echo of medieval serfdom, where your life is completely governed by the dictates of your employer, you're not wrong.

Some people have suggested that we wouldn't have these problems if America had a single-payer system rather than employer-paid health insurance, but I don't agree. Even if we had a national health insurance plan, paid for by taxes, right--wing Christians and their retinue of pundits would still be squawking about religious liberty and demanding that the public plan not pay for any medical procedure they don't personally agree with. And if they got this special treatment, soon they'd be demanding more: maybe they wouldn't want their tax dollars paying for police officers to protect abortion clinics from crime, for example.

The simple resolution to this problem is that religious freedom is the right to hold yourself to whatever moral principles you choose. It doesn't include the right to fence yourself off from society and declare that you won't contribute to the upkeep of any part of it that allows other people to make choices you disapprove of. Neither conscience nor religious freedom permits you to be a law unto yourself.

If this were really a legal right, pacifists could withhold the part of their taxes that went to the military; people angry at police brutality or draconian sentencing laws could withhold the part of their taxes that went to the police and the courts; people angry at their legislators could withhold the part of their taxes that pay for those legislators' offices and salaries; people who exclusively drive to work could withhold the part of their taxes that goes to mass transit; people who take mass transit could withhold the part of their taxes that goes to maintaining roads; and so on and so on. Tax forms would have to have hundreds of pages of checkboxes where you could declare which government acts you were willing to pay for and which ones you weren't. Clearly, the result of this would be chaos, which is why our laws don't work this way. Our democracy isn't a buffet where you can pick and choose which parts you want to participate in.

Does this mean that a democracy will sometimes pass laws that offend the consciences of some of its citizens? Yes. This isn't new or shocking information - it tends to happen after every election, after all - but the Christian right is acting as if it were a brand-new and unexpected outrage. Just like the Islamist believers who demand special protection from offense, they're trying to find in the Constitution a general right to make everyone else bow to their wishes, but no such legal principle exists.

We have the right to intervene through the courts in special cases, where the government is trespassing the Constitution by acting in ways that violate the equal protection of the laws. But no one, whether atheist or theist, has a general right to make the world bend around them and demand a unilateral opt-out from any government action they disagree with.

Image credit: Ludovic Bertron


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