by Max Brantley
Highly recommended: Linda Greenhouse's careful examination of the furor of the Obama administration rule to guarantee woman access to birth control pills and other contraception in most employee health insurance plans.
Cries of religious discrimination are drowning out the facts, law and reality, Greenhouse explains. For example, about conscience:
An obvious starting point is with the 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women who, just like other American women, have exercised their own consciences and availed themselves of birth control at some point during their reproductive lives. So it’s important to be clear that the conscientious objection to the regulation comes from an institution rather than from those whose consciences it purports to represent. (Catholic women actually have a higher rate of abortion than other American women, but I’ll stick to birth control for now.)
And what of the Catholic-affiliated hospitals?
Permitting Catholic hospitals to withhold contraception coverage from their 765,000 employees would blow a gaping hole in the regulation. The 629-hospital Catholic health care system is a major and respected health care provider, serving one in every six hospital patients and employing nearly 14 percent of all hospital staff in the country. Of the top 10 revenue-producing hospital systems in 2010, four were Catholic. The San Francisco-based Catholic Healthcare West, the fifth biggest hospital system in the country, had $11 billion in revenue last year and treated 6.2 million patients.
These institutions, as well as Catholic universities — not seminaries, but colleges and universities whose doors are open to all — are full participants in the public square, receiving a steady stream of federal dollars. They assert — indeed, have earned — the right to the same benefits that flow to their secular peers. What they now claim is a right to special treatment: to conscience that trumps law.
Religion trumps law you say?
But in fact, that is not a principle that our legal system embraces. Just ask Alfred Smith and Galen Black, two members of the Native American Church who were fired from their state jobs in Oregon for using the illegal hallucinogen peyote in a religious ceremony and who were then deemed ineligible for unemployment compensation because they had lost their jobs for “misconduct.” They argued that their First Amendment right to free exercise of religion trumped the state’s unemployment law.
In a 1990 decision, Employment Division v. Smith, the Supreme Court disagreed. Even a sincere religious motivation, in the absence of some special circumstance like proof of government animus, does not merit exemption from a “valid and neutral law of general applicability,” the court held. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the opinion, which was joined by, among others, the notoriously left wing Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.
She goes on to outline changing law and complications. It is important stuff, even if it is technical and requires study beyond the 10-word sound bites that have already been perfected on this topic.
PS — Greenhouse mentions the Obama administration's curiously muted defense, something that marked the health care debate and left the field clear to opponents. It's happening again and Democrats are going wobbly on an issue for which there is broad popular — and Catholic rank-and-file — support. That issue would be non-discrimination in health coverage for women who want birth control pills for contraception or other health reasons.
Another good article in Mother Jones on the Republican war on contraception.
And here, some polling data.