ACCOMMODATING BOTH THE RELIGIOUS AND WOMEN’S RIGHTS
By JONATHAN WOLFMAN
For the better part of the last few years the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and lay Catholics throughout the business community have ramped up their intrusions into secular law and life by claiming, in lobbying efforts and in court, that the Affordable Care Act is corrosive of religious liberty.
Their specific target has been the ACA’s requirement that employers whose religious beliefs forbid the use of contraceptives and religiously-affiliated but public institutions (such as, say Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C.) provide contraceptive coverage in their health plans.
A strong and smart blow for freedom was struck this week by federal Judge Carol Jackson in St. Louis. (As the New York Times points out, Judge Jackson was appointed by President George H. W. Bush.) Here’s the essence of her ruling:
While Judge Jackson noted that the Affordable Care Act exempts “churches, mosques, and other houses of worship” from the contraception coverage requirement, it does not and ought not exempt owners of secular businesses. In the case that she threw out, a mining company owner had sued in order to be able to deny coverage based on his private religious beliefs. Judge Jackson made clear that a for-profit, secular company cannot qualify for a religious exemption simply on the basis of the owner’s private beliefs about contraception.
The Obama Administration, right now, is working with a range of religious institutions that are also public accomodations so that employees may be covered for contraception but not directly by the religious institutions directly (by having the insurance corporations hemselves pay directly for the coverage).
Now, why, for example is Georgetown University Hospital — it’s terrific, by the way; I was a patient there years back and I can attest to its well-deserved excellent reputation –a public accommodation? It is because it not only serves people of any religion or of no religion, but by design, GWUH seeks actively to recruit and hire employees of all faiths and secular people as well. Why? It does because it deems a religiously and culturally diverse staff to be in its own and its patients’ interest.
A mining corporation, however, is by definition for-profit and secular.
Judge Jackson ruled, too that the first amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom “does not exempt individuals or entities” — such as businesses — from adhering to the law even when a person’s specific belief is sincere. And needless to say, even if the mining company’s owner is sincere here, exempting him or his secular business from the law would invite all sorts of insincere business owners to deny contraception coverge simply to save money at womens’ expense.
This would be as if, in the ’60s, draft boards exempted millions of eighteen-year-olds who, of a sudden, discovered their families’ ‘Quaker roots’ and declared themselves Conscientious Objectors (to all war). The point, of course, is not that the Selective Service was performing any moral service by abetting the vicious, racist, and utterly senseless Southeast Asian War: the Selective Service was not at all providing a moral Good to our nation. The ironic point is that, within its (immoral) historical and legal context, the Selective Service rightly granted religious exemptions narrowly, based on authentic Quaker family history and provably active Quaker status.
There are numbers of similar ACA-related cases now being heard throughout the country. My hope is that Judge Jackson’s decision is seen precisely for what it is, a clear and bold defense not only of the rights of women but for religious freedom.
Jonathan Wolfman blogs at http://open.salon.com/blog/jlw1.
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