I guess I can understand why the Obama Administration decided to stay the collision course with the Catholic Church and not make it easier for employers to obtain an exemption on religious grounds from the contraception coverage mandated by the health care reform act. Not only would walking back the mandate have given the liberal base of the Democratic Party more heartburn in an election year, but also: Why let any old employer that calls itself Catholic decline to cover medical products that 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women themselves use? Who exactly is the Catholic Church anyway?
And yet, there can be no question that Catholic doctrine turns thumbs down on "artificial birth control." Nor that providing faith-based non-profits that don't now offer contraception coverage (other than organizations devoted to providing religious services to members of their own faith) a year to adapt hardly seems like what HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius called striking an "appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services." At least if respecting religious freedom just means giving it a one-year extension.
That's not to say, as Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmstead writes in a letter to his diocese, that "the Administration has cast aside the First Amendment of the Constitution." Under the Supreme Court's current standard (thanks to Justice Scalia), the contraception mandate is a "neutral law of general applicability," and HHS is well within its rights to impose to impose it--unless and until the Court decides otherwise in cases now going forward.
But it would have been a whole lot better had HHS taken the opportunity to set a standard for determining when religious liberty must give way to health care requirements, and to establish broader criteria for determining when an employer qualifies as "faith-based" for purposes of an exemption. For example, why not set a "compelling interest" standard for requiring coverage? Thus, a Jehovah's Witnesses institution could not decline to cover blood transfusions in cases of life and death and Catholic institutions could not decline to cover abortions when the life of the pregnant woman is at stake. (Contraception might well not meet such a standard.) Similarly, it should be necessary for an employer not merely to claim an exception on religious grounds but to make a fair showing of religious identity, purpose, and doctrinal adherence.
What's very clear, however, is that we wouldn't be in this place at all had Congress and the Administration created health care reform as Medicare for All. By doing away with employer-based health coverage, a single-payer system would not have put the Catholic Church or any other religious body in the position of having to cover any products or procedures they conscientiously object to at all. Right-wing Catholic intellectuals and their episcopal fellow-travelers notwithstanding, there's every reason to think that the Catholic hierarchy would be happy with such a solution to their religious liberty problem. But the same cannot be said for the conservative Protestant groups that have jumped into the contraceptive fray.
“No government has the right to compel its citizens to violate their conscience," declared Galen Carey, Vice President for Government Relations of the National Association of Evangelicals. "The HHS rules trample on our most cherished freedoms and set a dangerous precedent.” It would be nice if the NAE, along with such other paladins of religious liberty as the Southern Baptist Convention, Focus on the Family, the Institutional Freedom Alliance, the Becket Fund, and the American Center for Law and Justice, would, for the sake of their sacred cause, put themselves firmly on the side of single-payer.