Unlike Huffington Post commentator Sarah O’Leary (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sarah-oleary/catholic-bishops-contraception_b_1268683.html?ref=politics) I do not at all doubt the deep sincerity of the US Roman Catholic Bishops’ objections to the extension of birth control access among American women, nor their abhorrence at the thought that employers who share their convictions against such practices will be expected nevertheless to provide for it in their employee health insurance plans. The Bishops and others of similar conviction have every right to their views. They are right to object to policies of the Obama Administration that would make birth control measures readily accessible to American women. That said, I should add that in my view, the Bishops are very wrongheaded in their convictions. Yet they do us all a service to religiously patrol the borders of religious liberty.
Americans highly value religious liberty, and in general we support a “hands off” policy toward religious beliefs and practices. This approach is wise politically and theologically. However, this hands off approach is not absolute. There are numerous examples in which we desire and expect the State to intervene to protect our fellow citizens against the sincerely held convictions of a minority of religious believers.
Regardless of their sincerely held religious convictions, we do not allow parents to withhold standard necessary medical treatment from their children. We deem this unfair to those children, our fellow citizens. Regardless of sincerely held religious convictions (and plenty of biblical precedent) we do not sanction bigamous or polygamous marriage. We deem this unfair to the second and third wives and their children, our fellow citizens. In these and many other cases that could be cited, we desire and expect the State to intervene on behalf of the health and welfare of our fellow citizens, even though it means contravening the undoubtedly sincere convictions of a minority of religious believers.
Thus with clear studies indicating that women’s general health is significantly improved with regular access to effective birth control procedures, it is completely in line with our generally hands-off approach to religious liberty for the State, in the interest of protecting our fellow citizens’ health and welfare, to pursue a policy that maximally facilitates birth control access for any woman who wants it, even against the sincerely held convictions of a minority of religious believers.
But I would caution against dismissing this all as just so much politics. The religious liberty issue has merit, and needs to be examined closely whenever it arises. We do not want State authorities to simply presume they can act willy-nilly against the deeply held convictions of religious minorities. We should be grateful that the concern has been raised in this case as well.
The Obama administration could have handled this with more tact and diplomacy, and quite frankly, for a supposed Constitutional scholar, Obama’s own pronouncements on what does and does not constitute legitimate religious convictions betrays a woeful lack of deep understanding of the issues involved in the concept of Separation of Church and State. Nonetheless, their concrete policy is clearly the correct one, in line with the historical precedent of what we expect from the State, to protect the health and well-being of our fellow citizens.