It is enshrined in our national ethos and also in the First Amendment to our Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
However, precisely what this value implies has recently become a matter of no small debate.
Many leaders in the Catholic Church have been fighting the Obama administration for several months now over one particular part of health care legislation — the requirement that insurers cover contraceptive care. They see this requirement as an attack on their freedom to practice their religion and they are using this perceived attack to launch a significant campaign in the name of religious freedom. They are doing this despite the fact that houses of worship are already exempt from this requirement, and despite the fact that insurers of other religious institutions are required to provide contraceptive coverage at no charge to religious institutions that might object.
Now, I have much love and affection for my Catholic brothers and sisters. I count several Catholic priests among my friends, and I serve the Episcopal Church as an appointed representative in ecumenical dialogue on the national level with representatives from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
That said, I do not believe that the voice we are currently hearing from some leaders in the Catholic Church is representative of the best of Catholicism as it exists in America today. Instead, as a Christian priest in another denomination, I feel compelled to speak out regarding these claims of religious freedom being violated.
If the health care legislation required that people use contraceptive coverage, then their anger would be legitimate. However, it does not. It simply requires insurance companies and providers to cover the cost of a procedure that is a recognized part of medical care by 21st-century America. Many leaders of the Catholic Church (though not all) agree with that Church’s official policy that the use of contraception is morally wrong, but this legislation does not compel its use.
As the debate has progressed, I have become increasingly concerned. After all, for our government to allow any religious institution to force coverage or non-coverage of a medical procedure is to enter dangerous ground.
As many have noted, this campaign entirely ignores the fact that many women choose contraception for reasons that have little to do with procreation and everything to do with valid medical problems. It’s unconscionable that this distinction is not made alongside of the fact that there is not a similar campaign ensuring the drugs like Viagra are not covered — as though the majority use of Viagra was for the purposes of conception.
Instead, the goal of this campaign is to use money to coerce individuals into one group’s view of ethical behavior. Whether or not one believes the use of contraception is an appropriate decision for a Christian to make, the decision of an individual should be based upon their own free exercise of religion, not upon enforced economic hardships by denial of coverage. Trying to find ways so that employees of Catholic institutions cannot use health care to provide for contraception is the opposite of free exercise of religion. It is about trying to keep something as expensive as possible so that people make the decision that the leaders think they should make.
The First Amendment protects the free exercise of religion for the individual. It does not protect institutions that seek to use that clause to abridge the rights and liberties of its members. It certainly does not mean that the government should support that task.
I make this point because of the lessons my own Anglican tradition has learned from history. Though our church has long supported the right of people to use contraception, we have in the past been more than willing to use the power of the State to enforce our own particular views. Indeed, the first pilgrims came here because my own spiritual forebears in the Church of England used law to enforce their religious beliefs.
Anglicanism, as it has grown up in America and as it exists in the Episcopal Church today, has since then always been wary of government enforcement of religious practice.
The position of these leaders will only ensure that the rich in their Church continue to ignore Church teaching on the matter (as they have for decades), while the poor and the middle class will be further coerced into doing what the hierarchy believes they should do or pay a financial price.
If the Catholic Church wants people to refrain from using contraception, then teach and form believers who agree with Church teaching. This is the harder road, but it is the road with integrity; it is the road wherein people practice their religion with freedom and sincerity.
— By the Very Rev. Jared C. Cramer is rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven and dean of the Lakeshore Deanery of the Diocese of Western Michigan.