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There is the secular and the religious

Let's try a little experiment. Exchange the Catholic Church's aversion to birth control with the Jehovah's Witnesses' objection to blood transfusions. If the Jehovah's Witnesses ran, say, a liberal arts college, would it be a violation of religious liberty to require it to cover blood transfusions in its employee health insurance plan?

Even the suggestion sounds absurd, yet this is the argument the Catholic Church is making. It wants to dictate the type of medical services available to any woman employed anywhere within its vast system of enterprises. The religious liberty of its employees is of no concern.

For anyone who has been under a rock for the last week, the Catholic Church has been positively apoplectic over new rules under the Affordable Care Act that will require employers to provide free contraceptives within their employee health insurance plans. The president's political opponents, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida's Republican star, jumped to defend the church and its efforts to force its doctrines — ones that hardly any U.S. Catholic women abide — on its huge secular workforce.

Even though churches and religions are exempt from the rule, the political firestorm forced the administration to adjust. On Friday, President Barack Obama announced a change that would give nonprofit, religiously affiliated employers, such as hospitals, universities and foster care agencies, the ability to exclude contraception as well. Their health insurers, however, would be responsible for providing free contraception and informing employees of the benefit.

While this at least provides employees with the same coverage, the change shouldn't have been necessary. The administration's initial policy was absolutely right. But with denunciations flying from the pulpit, as if Obama had demanded a cut of the collection plate, politics demanded an accommodation. Never mind that an estimated 45,000 people die each year from lack of health insurance and Obama's health reforms will extend health insurance to 32 million people who are currently uninsured.

Catholic leaders claim there is no daylight between Catholic enterprises and the religion itself. They say the work is a religious exercise. But they can't have it both ways. Since it is unconstitutional for government to fund the practice of religion, Catholic hospitals and universities must be claiming to be doing something other than that to qualify for billions of dollars in public money.

Moreover, this is not "unprecedented" as opponents claim. Currently, 28 states require contraception to be included when insurers provide prescription drug coverage. Of those, eight states have no opt-out for religious employers and four others offer an exemption that essentially mirrors the language the administration adopted.

Catholic institutions have adjusted. For example, DePaul University in Illinois, the nation's largest Catholic university, says that it provides contraceptive coverage in its employee health insurance and students can opt for an insurance plan with that coverage as well. Also, Dignity Health (formerly known as Catholic Healthcare West), a network of hospitals including a number that are Catholic-affiliated, has offered contraception in its health care packages since 1997. And somehow religion survived.

It is important to remember that health insurance is compensation, just like salary, vacation days and sick leave. These are benefits employees receive in exchange for work. It's not the church's business how they are used. Imagine if the church told an employee she couldn't use her salary to pay for contraception or take a sick day to see a doctor and at the same time renew a prescription for contraception.

But if the church simply cannot abide offering health insurance that includes contraception, it should bow out of doing secular work. There are plenty of experienced, professional and compassionate nonprofit organizations that would happily — eagerly, even — receive the pile of taxpayer money that the church gets every year. Hey, sometimes sticking to principles can be expensive. Let's see how many public dollars church leaders are willing to give up to stick to theirs.

There is the secular and the religious 02/11/12 [Last modified: Saturday, February 11, 2012 3:31am]
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