U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio believes that women who work for religiously affiliated hospitals, universities and charities should be subject to a religious agenda as a condition of their employment. The Florida Republican introduced a bill this week that would allow any employer with religious objections to avoid covering contraception in its employee health insurance plan. Rubio claims this would promote religious liberty. But whose? Certainly not the religious liberty of female employees. Rubio's bill, which has 20 co-sponsors including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, is an attempt to extend religious dictates beyond the confines of churches and religious orders and impose them on a secular staff.
Rubio is taking the side of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops against the Obama administration over a so-called "refusal clause," an exemption to the contraception requirement offered to religious entities as a nod to church-state separation under the Affordable Care Act. After the administration determined that free contraception would be part of the basic package of mandatory preventative health care coverage, the bishops demanded an expanded "refusal clause" not just for employees of churches — which the administration granted — but any affiliated organization. Under the bishops' formulation, teachers at parochial schools, social workers at religious adoption agencies and nurses at hospitals that are religiously affiliated would be denied a key health care protection.
The administration rightly turned down the bishops last month, although it did delay for one year the requirement that religiously affiliated employers include contraception in health coverage without an out-of-pocket cost. But Rubio's bill would overrule the Health and Human Services Department with language so expansive that it would allow any employer, whether formally associated with a religion or not, to deny contraceptive coverage in its health care plan on the basis of a religious belief.
Rubio is gaining political points with Catholic leaders such as Bishop Robert Lynch of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, who has been threatening to drop health insurance for the diocese's approximately 2,300 employees if the mandate stands. In a letter, Lynch mistakenly claims this is a matter of church-state separation. But when the Catholic Church decides to offer a range of secular services through hospitals, schools and charities that serve clients of any faith; hires professionals without regard to religion; and takes public money such as Medicare, it does not have a right to impose religious tenets on those employees. Church-state separation protects the practice of a faith from government interference, not other endeavors that happen to be associated with a religious entity.
Statistics from the Guttmacher Institute show that 99 percent of sexually experienced non-Catholic women and 98 percent of Catholic women have used contraception beyond natural family planning, which proves just how essential access to contraception is to women's reproductive health care. Rubio's bill would interfere with this access, as well as the religious liberty of women who don't want to be force-fed religion on the job.