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A woman holds a birth control pill. These tiny pills are now at the heart of an ongoing fight over religious freedom. (Eric Gaillard/REUTERS)
Should your boss be able to determine which prescription medications you take at home? Should your boss have a say in how many children you have?
Most Americans would answer a resounding “No!” to these questions. Yet if current political and legal trends continue, more and more Americans may find that their health care hinges not on what their doctors think is best for them but what their bosses believe about religion.
This curious state of affairs stems from a deliberate attempt to redefine religious freedom in America. You read that right religious liberty. A freedom that has historically been interpreted as an individual right of self-determination is being twisted into a means of controlling others and meddling in their most personal affairs. For the sake of true freedom, this must be stopped.
The Affordable Care Act mandates that certain basic services and features must be offered in employee health-care plans. Birth control is among these. Houses of worship and similar ministries are exempt from the mandate, and religiously affiliated entities (hospitals, colleges and social service groups) have been accommodated in other ways.
This is not enough for some ultra-conservative religious leaders who oppose birth control. They are insisting that any business owner should be able to deny his or her employees access to birth control no matter what the nature of the business.
At the behest of the Catholic bishops and their fundamentalist Christian allies, far-right legal groups have filed a slew of cases insisting that secular corporations and other employers have a right according to the principle of religious freedom to deny contraceptive coverage to the men and women who work for them. Among those waging this crusade are the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, TV evangelist Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice and the Alliance Defending Freedom, an organization founded by radio and TV preachers.
Several of these cases have bubbled up to the federal appeals courts. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit heard arguments in one case on Wednesday involving two firms, K&L Contractors and Grote Industries, and the following day the appeals court for the 10th Circuit heard a challenge brought by Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft stores.
These are all secular firms. K&L is a construction company, Grote makes auto-related products, and Hobby Lobby is in the retail business, hawking items such as pink flamingo wind chimes and 3-D garden gnome stickers. In each case, their owners personally oppose some forms of birth control.
Since these firms concede that they’re not religious institutions, the only question is whether the evangelical Christian and Catholic owners of the companies have the right to ignore a federal law that they disagree with on religious grounds — in this case, a law mandating birth control coverage in health-insurance plans.
They do not. The principle of religious liberty protects your right to make moral decisions for yourself, not others. Obviously, a law that required Hobby Lobby’s owners to use birth control would be a gross violation of their religious liberty. But the mandate doesn’t do that. It merely requires that the 22,000 employees of Hobby Lobby be given the right, if they choose, to access birth control through a health-insurance plan.
Nor can Hobby Lobby’s owners plausibly argue that their rights are violated because they must pay for these health-care plans. The fact is, if we allowed everyone to opt out of paying for everything they object to on moral grounds, society would quickly grind to a halt.
Fundamentalist Christians might refuse to pay for a public school system that teaches evolution. Conservative Muslims might refuse to pay for public museums that may contain art that offends them. More to the point, a boss who believes in spiritual healing might refuse to provide medical coverage at all, arguing that only God, not a doctor, can make you well.
In fact, if a company can refuse to cover your insurance costs for what it considers an “immoral” practice, what’s to stop it from simply refusing to hire anyone who might buy contraceptives with cash from a paycheck?
Under the First Amendment, you are shielded from being forced to pay for someone else’s religion. But nothing in the Constitution protects you from paying for things you just happen to object to on moral grounds. In a country as politically splintered as ours, such a la carte taxation would make it virtually impossible to get anything done.
This issue is also important from a medical perspective. Americans use birth control for many reasons — not just to limit births. Some women need birth control pills to manage serious issues such as endometriosis. Americans value their medical privacy. No one should be forced to go to their boss begging for medication they need to treat a serious condition. Religious freedom is not a license to meddle in someone else’s health issues.
The appeals court rulings in these cases are unlikely to be the last word. This issue is so important there’s a good chance it will land before the Supreme Court. If it does, the court should take the opportunity to make one thing very clear: As precious as it may be, religious freedom gives you no right to make moral or medical decisions for others.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C.