Few Americans of any political stripe would disagree with the simple proposition that the government should steer away from meddling in church affairs. Certainly, it should never try to force a religiously affiliated institution to violate a central tenet of its faith.
Yet in drawing up the rules that will govern health care reform, the Obama administration didn't just cross that line. It galloped over it, requiring employers affiliated with the Catholic Church to include free birth control in their health insurance plans. That's contrary to both Catholic doctrine and constitutional guarantees of religious freedom.
In the two weeks since the rule was finalized, setting off a predictable backlash from Catholic bishops and others, the administration has mounted three lines of defense for its decision, all of which sidestep the central issue.
The first is that churches and other houses of worship are exempt, which at least shows the administration weighed the issue. But then it whiffed. The exemption does not cover Catholic organizations that employ or serve large numbers of people of different faiths — the very definition of many Catholic colleges, hospitals and charities. Those organizations and the people who lead them would be put in the impossibly awkward position of facilitating contraception even though the church teaches that it is "intrinsically wrong to use contraception to prevent new human beings from coming into existence."
The administration's second line of reasoning is medical. It argues that nearly all women use contraception at some point in their lives (or want to), that it is expensive, and that the prestigious Institute of Medicine says birth control should be part of a comprehensive health care plan. We're sympathetic to the medical reasoning, but good intentions are not sufficient grounds to override religious freedom. The government is free to promote contraception in other ways. In fact, it already does.
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