Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Secular Defense of Religious Exemptions

11/16/2011—The religious exemption front is heating up. Word is that Belmont Abbey College, a religious institution, is suing the Federal Government over restrictions on the religious exemption currently contained in Obamacare (that plans must offer contraception and sterilization with a current religious exemption deemed by the college to be too narrow). On a related front, the Department of Health and Human Services did not award a new contract to treat victims of sex trafficking to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops under the National Human Trafficking Victim Assistance Program, because the USCCB refused to refer victims it treated for reproductive health care, including abortion and contraceptives.

As for law, there is some statutory obligation by the government to offer religious exemptions, but they have probably not been violated. Nor is there any right to government funding for faith-based services if the religious organization cannot for religious reasons offer all the services the government wants to contract for.

But the issues here are not really legal.

These stories are heating up in part because of the partisan atmosphere in Washington. Democrats and secularists generally are aware of the Catholic Church’s increasingly partisan stance. There is a perception that the Church has allowed its concerns over abortion to be used by purely political opponents of Obamacare.

But beyond that current political context, there are many secularists who have had it with religious exemptions. As far as they are concerned, if churches want to be employers, they should have to live with the law like everyone else. Many of their employees are not members of their faith and even those who are apparently would like the benefits the law specifies.

But let’s step back a bit. On a practical level, religious institutions have to be accommodated on Obamacare because there is no mandate to offer healthcare. Religious institutions apparently can opt out and offer money equivalents instead and their employees (like me) would then shop in the insurance exchanges, undoubtedly much worse off than at present. In addition, religious organizations offer terrific services under government contract and always have. The taxpayers usually get more bang for the buck with faith-based services.

On a deeper level, “conscience” exemptions don’t just favor religious believers. Since the Vietnam era draft cases, religious exemptions have been (or can be in the future) read as conscience clauses (“religion or its equivalent”). My concern is that such exemptions may prove unworkable in the future. But I certainly favor them in theory and I’m surprised that more secularists do not see the benefit in such conscience clauses. Of course, for me, this is all part of finding common-ground between believers and non-believers.

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