Contraception, Newt Gingrich, The Catholic Church, and The Boundaries of Religious Freedom

Newt Gingrich, a newly minted Catholic (guess he decided that he can do without the publicly cheating on his wives and divorcing one to marry the next for at least a while now), has an attack line against the Obama administration: that it is "secular government" eroding the freedoms of religious institutions. Why? Because the Obama Administration, under the Affordable Care Act, issued regulation that requires employer-sponsored health plans to include FDA-approved contraceptives. Churches and other houses of worship are exempted from it, but other religion-affiliated institutions, like religion-affiliated hospitals, schools and colleges are covered in cases where a majority of their employees are not of the given religion. This is not to force "Catholic" hospitals to offer contraceptives, mind you, but to simply cover it in their insurance policy so that if one of their employees needed and wanted to, they could go get it somewhere else.

The American Roman Catholic Church is pretty miffed by it, but one might remind the pontiff pontificating about "intrinsic evil" that to this day, there continue to be priests who go unpunished for abusing children.

Be that as it may, since Gingrich and the Catholic Church are waxing poetic about this regulation being an encroachment of religious liberty, let's look at it for what it really is: it is a check on religion-affiliated civil institutions' ability to force their beliefs on everyone who works for them, regardless of whether that employee subscribes to the given religion or not. According to the beliefs of the Church leadership and of Newt Gingrich, religious freedom is the freedom of churches to encroach on any civil institutions without having to abide by the same laws that apply to everyone one else.

In fact, freedom of (and from) religion is the freedom of an individual to believe whatever he or she pleases without being discriminated against. It is in order to protect that individual freedom that our laws give houses of worship many conscience exemptions from many of our laws. It is not, however, a Constitutional right of churches to enter any facet of civil life without abiding by our civil laws. You would think that people waxing poetic about individual freedom and against "collectivism" would understand this simple concept.

That is what happened here. No individual is required to use contraceptives, and no doctor is required to prescribe it. Churches and other houses of worship are exempt from this regulation. However, religion-affiliated civil institutions, the Administration says, must abide by the same regulations as everyone else, i.e. their employer health plans must cover contraception. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney pointed out exactly this, in other words last week:
But the point of the decision, which was made after careful consideration and, we believe, reaches the appropriate balance between religious beliefs and the need to provide — make services available to women across the country — you know, we want to make sure that women have access to good health care no matter where they work and that all women who want access to contraceptives are able to get them without paying a copay every time they go to the pharmacy.

And let’s be clear about it, because there’s been a lot of – in the — some of the commentary about it, there’s been some mis-statements about what it actually does. No individual will be required to use or prescribe contraception. This rule does not force anyone with a religious objection, such as a Catholic doctor, to prescribe or provide contraception. It merely requires that insurance companies provide coverage for contraceptives to patients who want them, which is the recommendation of the nonpartisan Institute of Medicine.
There is an extraordinary attack on individual freedoms by religious institutions in the name of God. That attack has over the years told us that women cannot avail themselves to all of the health care services necessary to them, that they weren't entitled to the same social recognition as men, that consenting adults in the privacy of their own home could not do as they pleased, and even that God separated the races into different continents and that therefore people of different races should not marry. Heck, even slavery came with its own Biblical justifications. "Religious" diction has been used time and again to divide people, separate them, and put and keep them down, and yes, to even cause wars.

But our country is also full of the stories of influence of religion in liberating, uniting and uplifting Americans. There is no denying the fact that the African American Civil Rights movement and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was influenced very much by their religious core. Many churches are at the forefront of the fight for the rights of gay Americans today. Young evangelicals are an integral part of the global environmental movement, and the Catholic church has itself spread an anti-poverty message.

Religion, in the instances it seeks to serve the least among us and uplift the downtrodden, gives us the best humanity has to offer. But when that same thing - religion - concentrates on dividing people, encroaching on personal freedoms and practicing medicine, it takes on a very ugly face.

But I digress. This article is not about the relative merits of religion in a society. It is, rather, about freedom of religion. There is no reason why a church, or another religious institution, should not be able to operate a civil institution - such as a hospital, a school, or an adoption center. In turn, there is also no reason why any civil institution - including ones operated by a religious entity - should not have to adhere to the same laws and rules as everyone else.

If the Catholic church wants to operate Catholic schools and make it available to - and take tuition money from - non-Catholics, there is no reason why their employees and students should have to sacrifice their civil and legal rights at the door of that institution. If the Catholic church wants to operate a hospital, employ non-Catholics, and take the insurance money of non-Catholic patients (or even patients who are Catholic but do not subscribe to every teaching of the Catholic church, such as most American Catholics), then there is no reason why, as an employer, they should be treated any differently from any other hospital in America under the law. There is no reason why nurses and physicians working at Catholic hospitals should not have the same protections of the law as employees of every other hospital in America.

And to top it off, Catholics for Choice points out that American Catholics are not only strongly pro-health reform (anyone remember a famous Catholic named Ted Kennedy as the driving force behind the Affordable Care Act?), but that a majority also believe that women ought to be able to access a full range of birth control through insurance provided by their employers. So in fact, it is the Catholic bishops and Newt Gingrich that is in the minority of Catholic opinion in America, not President Obama.

Something Newt Gingrich and the rest of the band of religious zealots need to realize is that in America, Catholicism is a religion, not the state. This is not the Vatican. Newt Gingrich and his ideological cohorts are rather comfortable asking American Muslims if they are Muslims first or Americans first. I don't suppose they would welcome the same question with equal praise were I to replace the word 'Muslim' with the word 'Catholic.' And they don't have to. In fact, no one should - neither Muslims, nor Catholics nor Evangelicals nor Jews nor Hindus, and nor atheists. In America, we celebrate our diversity of beliefs, not force a choice between the country we love and the house of worship we walk through (or choose not to walk through).

But as Americans, what we are keenly aware of is that just as the government must not interfere with the free practice of religion, so must religious institutions not interfere with the execution of our civil laws. When religious hierarchies decide to step into the civil arena, demanding exemptions from our civil laws for those affiliated institutions is, in fact, religious interference with the civil laws. Freedom of religion, just as every other freedom in the Bill of Rights, begins and ends at the nose of the individual (and their religious gathering place), and has no place encroaching on the lives of others who wish not to parttake. Every one of our rights has that same boundary, and religious freedom is no exception. Once again, freedom of religion does not pertain to the "right" of a Church to force their beliefs on anyone else. Outside of the four walls of the house of prayer, in the public civil square, no Church and no Mosque and no Temple has the right to negate the legal rights and entitlements of Americans.