What The State Can Make Us Do

Andrew Sullivan —  Feb 2 2012 @ 2:21pm


Libertarians and social conservatives are mostly united against the Obama administration's decision to require religious institutions that serve the public to provide insurance that covers contraception. Steve Chapman argues that religious liberty is being violated:

Churches are effectively excused from the mandate, but other religious institutions—such as hospitals, universities and charitable organizations—are not. A hospital may be named after a saint, founded by an order of nuns, replete with crucifixes and motivated by the teachings of Jesus, but too bad: It will be treated as the moral equivalent of Harrah's casinos or Bain Capital. Those in charge may regard birth control as inherently evil, but they will have to pay for it anyway.

Douthat compares the Mormon church, which mostly cares for its own and won't be impacted by the new law, to the Catholic Church, which provides services for non-Catholics:

[C]ontemporary liberalism offers religious groups a choice. They can try to serve the widest possible population, in which case a liberal administration will set rules that force them to violate their conscience. Or they can serve a narrower one, in which case liberal journalists will sneer at them (and their most generous benefactors) for only caring about their co-religionists.

McArdle doubles-down on this argument. Kevin Drum counters:

It's almost literally the case that the only remaining objection to contraception in modern American society comes from the tiny, exclusively male group that makes up the church's leadership. If the Catholic hierarchy wants to maintain its barbaric position that contraception is immoral, there's nothing I can do to stop it. But it's a position that maims and kills and immiserates millions throughout the world, and there's simply no reason that a secular government needs to — or should — humor them over this.

Scott Lemieux thinks the religious liberty frame is misleading:

[I]f opposition to contraception represented a widely practiced tenet of the Roman Catholic faith, I believe that the government's interest in securing gender equity with a reasonable, generally applicable law should prevail, but I can understand seeing this as a difficult question. But forgoing contraception is not central to the faith of most practicing Roman Catholics. There’s not a genuine clash between religious freedom and pressing government interests here; rather, a small minority of religious leaders are seeking a special exemption that burdens women in the name of principles the overwhelming majority of their followers reject.

Noah Millman broadens the debate:

The Catholic church is not just a worship-service-providing institution. Neither is it a worship-service-providing institution that happens to have a bunch of ancillary businesses taking advantage of the tax and other advantages a church affords. The reason the Catholic church sponsors hospitals is not merely to heal the sick, but to do so in such a way that witnesses to the truth of their doctrine – that witnesses to God’s presence in the world. The church has every reason to seek maximal autonomy in running such institutions, as well as maximal scope in the kinds of services these institutions provide.

The Catholic church, in other words, represents if not a total approach to society and to “the good” certainly a very “thick” approach, touching most important aspects of life, and as such is necessarily a competitor with a hegemonic state. So the question at issue is not really freedom of religion – it’s actually pretty easy to reconcile the individual conscience with the HHS rules, provided sufficient flexibility in getting to new institutional arrangements that don’t transgress that conscience – but how large a scope the hegemonic state wants to give to such competition.

Earlier thoughts on the new requirements here and here.

(Photo: A woman shows condoms with a picture of Pope Benedict XVI and reading 'I said No !' on March 25, 2009 in Paris. By Boris Horvat/AFP/Getty Images)