By Tom Krattenmaker
The always contentious issue of religious freedom appears to be heading back to the Supreme Court. Not that this court can be trusted to make a measured decision, but Lord knows we need someone to restore order and bring clarity to the principle and its application, which are subject to wildly different and often simplistic understandings.
On Friday, the justices considered accepting a case, Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell, or one of several related cases, involving how religiously affiliated non-profit groups receive exemptions from provisions in the Affordable Care Act requiring that contraceptives are part of employee health plans.
The key question before the high court: Is it too much of an imposition to expect a religiously affiliated organization to submit a form?
The plaintiffs, a charity called the Little Sisters of the Poor, are among numerous religiously affiliated hospitals, schools, and non-profits objecting to the mechanism the Obama administration has developed to ensure that contraceptives remain available to employees even when their employers object.
In a move that has set many liberal eyes to rolling, the religious non-profits are claiming moral opposition, not just to providing contraceptives — a claim the Obama administration respects — but also to the very act of requesting the exemption, which activates the insurance company or a third party to step in to provide the contraceptive coverage.
Seen from the Sisters’ perspective, submitting the form is an act of complicity, of aiding and abetting a moral crime. The sin of using birth control continues, and the employer has acted to facilitate it.
Fair point, in the abstract. But even if the religious employers aren’t being as ridiculous as they might seem to those outside their world, there might be no avoiding this particular mechanism, or one like it. And there might be no avoiding these groups continuing to have some small amount of complicity in the ongoing use of contraceptives however this particular conflict is resolved. Frankly, we are all involved in indirect support of things we oppose, including our participation in an ongoing exercise known as paying taxes.
Even if the religious organizations’ exemptions were absolute and their employees had no contraceptive coverage — the situation that exists now with churches, and one the high court could conceivably extend to the plaintiffs — dicey dilemmas are coming. If a non-married employee becomes pregnant and avails herself of the plans’ coverage for maternity care, the entire conceived-in-sin enterprise will be covered by the employer-provided health care plan. On this point, those fighting the no-contraception legal battle have remained mum.
Truly, society is awash in what traditional Christians see as sin, and there is only so much they can do about it, and only so much responsibility they should have to bear for it.
So, too, is society replete with compelling principles and policies beyond religious freedom. One of those is the effort to get contraceptives to as many people as possible, at the lowest cost possible — this for the simple reason that we have come to accept that sex is inevitable, and that abortions and other unintended consequences are fewer when contraceptives are widely used.
Supreme Court precedent and common sense also tell us that no principle, even one as cherished as religious freedom, is absolute. It must be implemented in a way that is workable, lest we find ourselves in a chaotic situation in which each person is going by his or her own rules and justifying them on the basis of real or made-up religious convictions.
Not that the Little Sisters of the Poor and like-minded people are trying to deceive anyone about their beliefs. But their assertion of religious freedom rights cannot be viewed in isolation. One person’s religious freedom has implications for other people’s freedoms and rights. When worthy principles collide, we must try to work out reasonable accommodations.
Hasn’t the Obama administration gone far enough to work out such an accommodation? Can’t the Little Sisters and others “take yes for an answer,” as Supreme Court analyst Linda Greenhouse puts it?
They should. They are, after all, being let off the hook. And at some point in this system from which we all take, we all have to give something, too.
Tom Krattenmaker, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is communications director at Yale Divinity School. His latest book is The Evangelicals You Don’t Know.