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Catholic Bishop: Religious Exemption for Me But Not for Thee

March 1, 2012, 9:00 am | Posted by Nick Sementelli

Bishop William LoriIn his two appearances before Congressional committees to testify about the recent contraception regulations proposed by HHS, Catholic Bishop William Lori has made clear that he sees the new rule as a violation of the First Amendment right to religious liberty, arguing that it’s unconstitutional to force any religious individual or organization to pay for services that violate tenets of their faith.

This is the reasoning that led the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to endorse the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act (also known as the Blunt amendment in the Senate and the Fortenberry bill in the House), which would amend the Affordable Care Act to allow any employers to drop any service from their insurance coverage because of moral or religious objections.

As many have noted, this broad expansion of religious liberty would create a dangerous slippery slope in which individual corporate executives could haphazardly drop coverage of all sorts of services like cancer screenings, maternity care, diabetes testing, or practically anything.

This legislation would put into effect the scenario Justice Scalia himself warned about in a 1990 opinion dealing with a religious objection to drug laws: “to permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”

The easiest to spot problems don’t even require that much slipping down the slope. Established religious groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists are well-known for their opposition to common medical services such as blood transfusions and pharmaceuticals respectively.

Even Sen. Blunt has made clear that this is within the scope of the legislation:

The Respect the Rights of Conscience Act doesn’t mention any medical procedure. It doesn’t mention anything specifically. It treats Christian Scientists like Catholics, and Muslims just like Methodists,” Blunt says. “The principle is you cannot tell people they have to do things that violate their faith beliefs. It’s as simple as that.

Under the RRCA, any employee of a company run by an adherent of these faiths could presumably see his or her access to these services dropped. Do the Catholic bishops really support these results?

Luckily, at yesterday’s hearing Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) asked Bishop Lori this exact question, giving him the chance to explain whether he thought the rights of religious objectors were limitless or if they ultimately came up against a line.

REP. SCOTT: But the Catholic Church policy on contraception isn’t the only religious exemption, religious situation we have. Christian Scientists, for example, Jehovah’s Witnesses have different health care religious beliefs. Should they be required to conform to the general law that applies to everybody else?

BISHOP LORI: I believe that as a general principle rights of conscience should be broadly accommodated unless there is a compelling government interest. And if that compelling government interest is established then I believe it should be carried forward in the least intrusive way possible.

This, of course, is the exact opposite of the principle of the RRCA Lori claims supports, which suggests the government can never have a compelling interest to overrule religious objections. Not only does Bishop Lori acknowledge this trade-off, he appears to suggest that the objections of Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses shouldn’t qualify for exemptions. In short he seems to be arguing that Catholic objections should get an automatic free pass, but those of other religions should have to pass a rational test first.

Further, it undermines the argument that this debate is exclusively about religious freedom rather than contraception itself. Accepting Bishop Lori’s test means we’re no longer debating first principles and religious beliefs, but policy specifics relying on evidentiary claims and predictions about social and health outcomes.

The Bishops certainly have strong feelings on these issues, and they have every right to express them in the public square, but they have to accept that their arguments will be weighed against all others. This was the entire point of the the extensive review and public comment period about which preventive services should be covered without cost sharing by policyholders.

In the end, the government decided that yes, this is one of those times where the interests of the public outweigh some absolutist religious objections. However, the Obama administration also struck an accommodation that ensures, among other things, that Catholic institutions will not have to pay for services they find morally objectionable.

The Bishops may not like or agree with the decision our democratic process produced, but they don’t get to flash the First Amendment card as some kind of instant-nullification process.

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