What began as a federal initiative to provide free health care services and contraception to women in government-run health insurance plans has now manifested into political tension between church and state.
A recent requirement issued in January by the Obama administration required religiously affiliated employers in federal health insurance schemes to provide birth-control coverage to women.
In an attempt to alleviate the hostile response by religious institutions, the Obama administration announced Friday a new revision that would place insurance companies, rather than religious groups, as the direct providers of contraceptives. With this revision, women employed by religious organizations would still receive free contraceptive coverage from their health insurance schemes.
Although such a revision is necessary as a preliminary step, it is not sufficient. The revision simply replaced the religious institution’s direct role as provider with an indirect one. A certain amount of subsidies that would cover contraception come from those who contribute to the insurance scheme ““ and this includes religiously affiliated groups. Subsidizing contraception in this way still places religious institutions in a moral dilemma ““ they must either agree to pay for contraception or choose to terminate their health care plans.
Bishops and religious institutions such as the Catholic Church continue to respond with contempt to the measure because it runs against their doctrine ““ namely that sex must solely remain an act of procreation.
Exceptions to the legislation exist for religious groups ““ defined as religious employers ““ in which the majority of employees share the same beliefs. These exceptions, however, do not apply to large religious institutions such as universities or hospitals.
In a letter to the secretary of Human and Health Services, Rev. John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, asserts that an agreement to comply with the mandate works against the church’s “moral teaching” if the university agrees to comply. Yet the decision to cut its health care plans and thus avoid contraceptive services reflects a move against the church’s “social teaching.”
Jenkins provides a sensible solution to the dilemma when he asserts that the definition of “religious employer” should be widened rather than narrowed to include groups that form close ties with the church. Expanding the definition of “religious employer” would thus alleviate the discomforting position many religious institutions are pressured with as this mandate reaches its full effect. The Obama administration should meet this very compromise.
An institution’s identification and exemption as a religious employer should stem from its mission and identity rather than its constituency.
It is true that contraception could alleviate certain unwanted consequences associated with personal decisions. Yet to place institutions closely tied to the Church in a position that requires them to blatantly act against church doctrine is equally problematic.
Amid the fierce nationwide opposition spearheaded by Catholic bishops, the Obama administration admirably attempts to reconcile the confrontation between traditional religious values and practical necessities.
The concern brought forth by religious institutions does not overshadow the need for free preventive services vital to many women. And it is not an attempt by the Catholic Church to receive preferential treatment.
Nonetheless, individuals enter an institution as employees with the knowledge that they are committing themselves to employment at a religious institution. The implication of that is transparent.