In the Baptist tradition, believers come to their own moral reckoning through a reading of scripture as informed through the power of Holy Spirit. There is no hierarchy with the power to say what a believer ought to do. This does not mean that the tradition does not have a moral position, or that it does not teach that there are very fundamental differences between what is right and what is wrong. It does mean that at the end of the day, each person must make h/er own moral choices based upon her own conscience.
This is why I say the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and their Baptist allies are wrong in their opposition to the Obama administration’s requirement that insurance companies offer coverage for contraception. They want to deny women the right to the dictates of their own consciences.
In an article “Why Baptist stand with Catholics on birth control mandate,” Bryant Wright, Richard Land and O.S. Hawkins said: “This mandate by the executive branch is less about birth control, abortion or the Catholic Church than it is about the government attempting to compel people to subsidize and pay for that which they find unconscionable.” They argue that the mandate is a violation of religious freedom.
I say that if the Obama administration had not made the mandate applicable to all employers, it would have violated the Fourteenth Amendment, the equal protection rights of women. This amendment says in part: “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” In this debate we have a clash of rights. Or do we?
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says in part: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” There is nothing in the Affordable Care Act that requires Catholics to use contraception. There is nothing in the law that prohibits Catholics-lay or clergy-from preaching against contraception. The accommodation that President Obama announced moves the mandate from the Catholic institution to the insurance companies. So, it is difficult to see how this is a prohibition of the free exercise of religion. However, this is not enough for the USCCB and their allies because they want to restrict the use of contraception by restricting access.
And, this is a violation of the First Amendment because it establishes a religious principle in the public square and violates the principle of equal protection under the law.
Those opposed to President Obama’s mandate argue that women are free to use contraception, however without insurance coverage, it is more expensive and women without coverage will have to pay more out of pocket for contraception. This could very likely put an additional financial burden on women who work for employers who do not want to include contraception in their insurance coverage.
Further, not all Catholics agree with the USCCB. There are religious organizations that not only agree with President Obama, but who want the mandate to go even further. The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice said in a statement:
“The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) celebrates the decision by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on January 20, 2012 to reaffirm the importance of contraceptive services as essential to the new health care plans and requiring that most religious employers comply with it. We recognize this is a victory for many women, but her decision not to extend this coverage to all Americans, no matter the religious perspective of their employer, is disappointing. All women deserve access to affordable birth control.”
The Christian Post reports that several interfaith organizations also support President Obama’s position:
“Catholics for Choice, Episcopal Divinity School, Jewish Women International, Methodist Federation for Social Action, Muslims for Progressive Values, the Planned Parenthood Clergy Advisory Board, and several others said in a Wednesday statement that the Obama administration was correct in requiring institutions that do not have purely sectarian goals to offer comprehensive preventive health care.”
This discussion has been framed as a clash between religious liberty and women’s health. In reality, religious liberty is not prohibited. The law prohibits religious institutions having the power to impose their religious belief on people, even their own employees. I say again: women ought to enjoy equal protection under the law.
This Baptist believes that woman is created in the image and likeness of God no less than man. This American citizen believes that woman ought to enjoy the blessings of life, liberty, property and equal protection under the law no less than man. I believe that churchmen ought not to seek to deny women equal protection in the name of their own church teachings.
I say to them: make a stronger case and trust women to use their own minds and their own moral consciences to make a decision that is right.
(I invite the USCCB and the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention to join in opposing a proposed bill in the Virginia legislature that would require women to have an invasive ultrasound procedure before having an abortion. This is true overreach of government.)