Monday, August 19, 2013

The Limits to Religious Freedom

The First Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits the Congress from making any law that would prohibit the free exercise of religion. Americans generally put a high value on religious freedom and there has been a growing recognition that First Amendment protects our freedom from religion. But can there be limits to a person's free exercise?

Courts have held that parents' free exercise of religion can be limited when it poses a threat to their children. Most of us would agree that withholding medical treatment for a child because you believe only in praying for healing is not a protected form of free exercise. We would also agree that having slaves would not be a protected form of the free exercise of religion, even though the Bible allows the practice. The free exercise of religion by Quakers and Mennonites does not include their being exempted from paying taxes to fund the Pentagon, even though my Quaker mother tried to make that claim.

Roman Catholics and others are arguing that their religious freedom is being denied by the requirement under the Affordable Care Act that employer-provided health insurance must include contraceptive coverage. Because they believe that artificial birth control is immoral they assert that providing the coverage would make them complicit in an immoral act. While I have some sympathy with their position, I see some significant problems with their argument.

Health insurance is a benefit, part of an employee's compensation. How the employee uses the benefit should not be limited by the employer's religious convictions. We would reject the idea that an employer whose religion prohibited the drinking of alcoholic beverages should be allowed to stop his employees from using some of their wages to buy beer. Decisions about the use of the medical care covered by insurance, like decisions about how to spend their wages, are the employees' responsibility, not the employers'.

A second problem with the argument has to do with the question of complicity. The argument that my Quaker mother made, an argument that would have been rejected in court if the IRS hadn't raided her bank account, was a much stronger one than the current one about birth control. Stronger because complicity in acts which she considered immoral was not simply a possibility but a sure thing. An employee might not choose to use the contraceptive coverage, but there was no possibility that my mother's taxes would not be used to buy guns and airplanes and bombs and pay soldiers to kill.

If those who object to providing contraceptive coverage prevail in court it might well be seen as a victory for religious liberty. I wouldn't see it that way. Instead I would see it as a victory for a kind of isolationist religious mentality, one that seeks to protect the person from even the most tenuous connection with immoral actions. We are all, in ways both large and small, complicit in actions which we would not ourselves choose to perform. We pay taxes that are used to spy on us. We buy products and services from companies that contribute to politicians whose positions we consider to be immoral. Every day we make decisions that have consequences that we don't like, consequences that we may not be able to foresee, but also consequences that are obvious. We do our best to avoid complicity with actions that we find immoral, but moral purity is an illusion in such a complex society as ours.