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April 20, 2012

Freedom FROM Religion?

The blog in a shortened form was published in the Springfield News-Leader under the title “Religion, state clash over law” on May 14, 2012 page 9A.

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Does freedom OF religion, the right to exercise religious faith according to the dictates of one’s conscience, also include freedom FROM religion—the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness without one’s life being limited by the religious scruples of others? That is to say, can the secularist, atheist, and the agnostic live in the U.S. expecting to be free to pursue within the law their own non-religious lives? So far as I know Paul was the first to raise this question over the issue of meat offered to idols. He said eat the meat dedicated to idols without raising questions of conscience about it—“For why should my liberty be determined by another person’s scruples?” (1 Corinthians 10:29b).

     The first amendment to the U. S. Constitution says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”—the statement sounds rather diffident toward religion on the part of the congress. As stated in the Preamble to the U. S. Constitution, however, the federal government does have an affirmative duty “to promote the general welfare” of its citizens, and to that end in the Affordable Health Care Act has required insurance companies to provide for women’s reproductive health care in the policies they offer. The Conference of Catholic Bishops, however, has objected to this provision citing governmental intrusion into religion. Roman Catholic hospitals do not provide contraceptive medical care for women as a matter of the Church’s conscience—without regard for the conscience of others. Catholic Universities that are self-insuring also do not provide for women’s reproductive health care—without regard for the conscience of those who work in the institutions.

     The position of the Council of Bishops raises two questions in my mind: (1) should a particular theological dogma take precedence over the individual human welfare of those who do not share that particular theological ideology? Or put another way: in the public arena should a particular religious teaching trump a secular way of life? Or put still another way: can a religious institution ignore accepted secular medical practice and still be allowed to compete in the health care field impervious to industry standards?
(2) Should religious institutions be permitted to engage in business in the public arena without complying with secular regulations and standards? For example, if the religious institution made cars, should they be allowed to make a car without adhering to the safety standards incumbent on other car manufacturers on the basis that the standards violate their religious beliefs? We have a parallel in the debate over women’s healthcare. The secular standard in the medical field and the hospital industry is that birth control coverage is part of providing for the total healthcare of women. Why should religious institutions choosing to provide health care coverage for their employees be permitted to offer to their policy holders policies that cover less than acknowledged industry standards?

     If any religious institution decides to engage in business in the public arena, as the Council of Catholic Bishops puts it, “to serve the common good,” it must meet the standards and laws of the secular state. These institutions may not coerce the state to adopt their theological understanding of insurance coverage and hide behind accusations of “government intrusion into religious matters” and “limitation of religious freedom.”

     What the Council of Catholic Bishops considers the “common good” in this case is not shared by most Americans. Hence if the Church offers insurance coverage it must include for purchase an option for women’s reproductive health care for people who do not share its sectarian views. The Church should not be allowed to offer the general public fewer health care options for sectarian religious reasons than what is offered by secular businesses. Such a policy does not discriminate against the Church; Catholics may still practice their faith as individuals, but in the public arena they may not, as an institution, impose their views on others who do not share them. In a democracy what is done for the public good must be designed to allow the public the greatest choices possible under secular law. To the extent that public choices are limited for sectarian religious scruples, to that extent the act done “for the public good” is repressive on others who do not share the religious scruples—in this case the majority.

     What gets lost in these recent power struggles between the church and the state over health care is the nameless young woman with few resources, no community standing, and no health care coverage. She is at the mercy of the power brokers trying to force their views on public policy. It is a sad day for democratic ideals when sectarian religious views control the health and welfare options of private citizens not sharing those views.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 7:15am

Charles, Thank you for articulating so well the issues in this matter. I too have thought the same thing, although not so clearly as you stated. I would like to think that politicians and media folks could articulate this. I suppose courage is lacking in those quarters. By the way, Arland Jacobson referred me to your blog, and I am glad to have a "neighbor" like you here in Missouri (we live in KC).
Warm Regards,
Cliff Schuette
Posted by Cliff Schuette on 4/21/2012 at 6:52am
Good Morning Cliff,
Thanks for your comment and welcome to the blog! I hope you will not hesitate to engage ideas that appear here with your own insights into the issues. If you are in contact with Arland please give him my regards!
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 4/28/2012 at 10:18am