On Religious Liberty and Civil Law

coexistI cannot stop ruminating about the Supreme Court’s decision to allow businesses with sincere religious objections to opt out of the provision of the Affordable Care Act that mandates coverage of contraception. This whole situation has consumed me for a week. I’ve been reading non-stop, looking at alternate viewpoints, studying reactions and whoa. Whoa. There’s a lot people don’t understand. They don’t understand the Affordable Care Act, they don’t understand how insurance works, they don’t understand what laws mean, and they REALLY don’t get what living in a collective entails. They also don’t understand that religious liberty isn’t absolute.

Lemme ‘splain. No. Will take too long. Lemme sum up.*

The Affordable Care Act set up a legal framework for what a health insurance plan must cover. Before ACA, insurers could include or exclude stuff as they and the purchasers of the plan saw fit. That’s why some plans didn’t cover maternity care or chemo or meds for mental health or what have you. Now there is a list of what a plan must cover and it cannot cover less than that. It can cover more, but not less. One of the things a plan must cover is a list of 20 types of contraception. They must be made available to patients without copay. They’re not free – the cost is covered with premiums. But the cost is covered, no questions asked. (I wrote at great and snarky length about how insurance works if you want an arsenal of snotty things to say to your angry cousin who keeps posting things about the government handing out IUDs)

Everything in the previous paragraph is the law of the land. As we all learned from Schoolhouse Rock, laws are rules for all of us and we all need follow them.

The Hobby Lobby suit alleged that the part of the law that mandates contraception coverage violates their practice of religion because they sincerely believe several types of birth control to be abortion. The Supreme Court agreed with them and created a loophole for religious owners of a certain class of business to be exempt from that mandate.

So, now some people don’t have to follow a law. Because of their religion. This is being called a tremendous victory for for the First Amendment because it exalts the practice of religion over public health law.

I don’t see it that way. I see it as a tremendous over-reach of religion into public life and civil law to the detriment of the collective American society.

You see, religious practice and civil law are different things. They can usually coexist peacefully but sometimes they bump heads. Sometimes civil law trumps certain religious practices or practices condoned by religion.

Here are a few examples:

  • Slavery: Slavery is clearly condoned by the Bible. I’m certain the Biblical references to slavery were strong arguments against abolition. However, the common good dictates that owning other human beings is bad and the law criminalized owning slaves. No amount of Bible quoting can or should override that law.
  • Polygamy: Numerous religions condone polygamy. American civil law prohibits it. This is an utterly arbitrary decision but it’s the law. You need only look at the story of the Browns of Sister Wives fame to see how flaunting the law in Utah played out.
  • Military Funding: Quakers (and others) are pacifists. They do not condone war under any circumstance. While they have historically received conscientious objector status to avoid conscription during times of compulsory military service, they are not exempt from paying taxes that fund our military.
  • Execution: Many of the methods of execution mentioned in religious texts, such as stoning, are regarded as cruel and unusual under US law. Moreover, many of the actions that the Bible calls capital crimes are not under civil law. I don’t think anyone wants to see divorce proceedings include death penalty trials if one party committed adultery.

There are probably other, and better, examples of how religious expression is limited. Religion is like everything else: certain moderating steps can be taken to protect the greater good. Because, as I said earlier, we live in a collective and we need to accept that our own needs and desires, religious or otherwise, cannot always be paramount. Sometimes, like the Quakers cutting Uncle Sam checks every April knowing the money would pay for wars on two fronts, you have to be an American first. You have to obey the law even if you don’t like the law. Using your religion to ask for special treatment is ugly. Using your religion to ask for special treatment that affects everyone else in the country by changing a sweeping reform? Is arrogant. Because it’s not all about you. It’s not all about me. It’s about a nation of people who all need certain things to survive, things like food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. The US government has, over the years, tried various ways to make those things available to all. Sometimes they do it well, sometimes clumsily, always with controversy but always with the intent of helping people who need help. The Affordable Care Act attempts to regulate the insurance market to make medical care more accessible and the payment system for medical care more fair FOR EVERYBODY. It’s not perfect. Some people get a better deal than others. Some people pay more than they used to. But some people have health care options they didn’t have before and that’s a good thing. Overall, there is a collective benefit to broader access to health care. We will all benefit from a healthier populace.

And yet, from the moment the ACA was proposed, people have been trying to carve out exemptions for themselves because they only care about what they need. A Senator actually said maternity care coverage shouldn’t be mandated because men don’t use it (Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) responded by saying “Your mom used it”). There has been a glaring lack of respect for the collective and its diverse needs. This argument that religion should be the path to exemptions from the law turned out to be the most potent one because religion holds such a special place in so many lives. What the Court forgot is that religion, in many ways, is an exclusionary force. Religion is generous to those within the walls of a temple but dismissive of those outside. Letting religion dictate the formation of laws means letting laws take on the ethos of serving those who believe more than those who do not. That is not the purpose of civil law. Civil law is to protect and promote the common good, not merely the good of those who follow a certain god.

Time will tell what this religious exemption means for the collective good. I’m not optimistic. I think we’ll lose much of the ground we gained with the Affordable Care Act and I think women especially will suffer the losses.

*Quote from The Princess Bride. Because there’s never a wrong time for a quote from The Princess Bride.

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2 comments for “On Religious Liberty and Civil Law

  1. July 5, 2014 at 7:25 am

    Very well said. I have been stewing over this as well. So many ways it can get much worse now that the door is cracked open.

  2. Denise Thress
    July 14, 2014 at 11:41 am

    Find applications for religious exemptions for things other than birth control. Specifically CHEMOTHERAPY. Until this hits the fanatics in the face, nothing will change.

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