Enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, provisions ensuring the freedom of religious worship and barring the establishment of a state religion have been held sacred in the United States since its founding. Yet no matter how fundamental these provisions might be, it seems that American leaders still have trouble interpreting them. The recent debate over contraception in the United States demonstrates just how far politicians on both sides of the political spectrum have strayed in their understanding of the concept of freedom of religion.
For the sake of disclosure, as a practicing Catholic, I’ve always felt that the Church’s ban on all forms of contraception was a mistake. Certainly methods like Plan B have ethical implications that are of concern to a religious organization; items like condoms, however, not only avoid those problems but would also be valuable in the Catholic Church’s humanitarian work in Africa. That being said, matters of doctrine, barring blatant violations of human rights such as human sacrifice, are and ought to be the prerogative of a religious body’s leadership and members, not a government.
With this in mind, the Obama Administration’s requirement that Catholic employers violate their doctrine and pay for contraception is inexcusable. Even if President Obama and Secretary Sebelius believe that the Catholic Church should accept some forms of contraception, the United States government has no business trying to unilaterally alter Church doctrine. The argument floated by the Administration in recent days, that 99% of sexually active American Catholics use contraception, holds no sway. Only a fraction of American Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs wear head coverings that are mandated by the doctrines of their religions, but requiring hats to be removed in hospitals with no exemption for doctors and patients of those faiths who take appropriate sanitary precautions would be equally wrong.
Taking the President to task for disregarding the freedom of religion does not mean that those on the political Right are not guilty as well. Former Senator and current presidential candidate Rick Santorum, for example, has also chosen to weigh in on the contraception debate. Taking the opposite position from Mr. Obama, Santorum insists that there is a “danger” in the sexual activity that the existence of contraceptives encourages, and seems willing to curtail their use through government policy. This position takes a doctrine from a particular faith and seeks to make it apply to all, which is equated with the establishment of religion. Reflecting on the example from earlier, an Administration mandating that all Americans wear the Jewish Kippah or Sikh Turban would be violating the establishment clause in the same fashion.
In the spirit of the First Amendment, Santorum, Sebelius, and Obama are certainly entitled to their opinions. Enforcing them in the public sphere is another matter entirely. Ms. Sebelius, as a Catholic herself, is within her rights to create an activist group and lobby the Vatican to amend its policy on contraception, and Mr. Santorum is free to go on a “Cultural Crusade”, speaking out around the country against the supposed dangers of contraceptives. Neither, however, has the right to use the power of the Federal Government to suppress religious liberty by enforcing these positions.
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