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By George Kane

george head smallSeparation of Church and State was back on the front page when the Department of Health and Human Services announced the employer mandates for the rollout of the new health insurance reform. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops screamed that the rules violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment by forcing the Catholic Church to pay for coverage for contraceptives.

Their claim was debatable, but in an election year the Republican presidential candidates were quick to denounce Barack Obama for declaring war on the Catholic Church. Under Obama’s plan, the Church itself was given an exemption from the requirement to provide health insurance to employees that includes, without copayment, preventive reproductive services. That exemption was not applied, however, to the businesses operated by the Church, such as hospitals, universities and charities.   

Many of these organizations affiliated with the Catholic Church already provide contraception coverage for employees to comply with laws currently in effect in most states. In some cases they have used loopholes to avoid the mandates, either through self-insurance or declining all drug coverage. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled in 2000 that the 1978 Pregnancy Disability Act covered all women, not just those who were already pregnant. Therefore, employers cannot discriminate against women by refusing contraception coverage in their health insurance package.   

The new HHS requirement borrows from state regulations language that has already been affirmed by the courts, but the bishops have chosen to use their roll-out as the occasion to take an uncompromising stand. Last year they accused Obama of anti-Catholic bias when his administration cut off funding for their campaign against human trafficking, because the program refused to provide contraception and abortion services to clients. Is this the state into which government entanglement with religion has fallen, that churches claim government support as an entitlement?   

Churches also run commercial enterprises that are far removed from a ministerial purpose. Catholic cemeteries and mortuaries are always lucrative. For years the Church owned Christian Brothers Vineyards in Napa, California, and priests have claimed tax exemptions for companies that they have set up for mail-order product sales. What about the manufacture and sale of the Mormons’ magic underwear? Should these church-affiliated enterprises also be entitled to the exemption?   

The Catholic claim runs far beyond even enterprises affiliated with the Church. Catholic bishops want to extend the exemption to Catholic businessmen, so that they individually will not be required to violate Church teachings. It will, not incidentally, give their businesses a competitive advantage to be able to provide employees a trimmed-down, lower-cost insurance plan than their secular competitors. The Church would probably not object if the bottom line induces anti-contraceptive moral outrage among the owners of those nonreligious businesses.   

Can I get a tax exemption, to assuage my very consolable conscience? I object on principle to any government that issues currency with “In God We Trust” written on it.   

Noncompliance with government policy based on moral principle is not new. In Menlo Park, California, where I grew up, a well-known pacifist activist owned a bookstore. Every year, Roy Kepler filed personal and business taxes, but included a check for only half the amount because he objected to funding the military. It settled into an established routine, in which the IRS just filed papers with the court and withdrew the remainder of the tax bill from Kepler’s accounts.   

This arrangement permitted Kepler to satisfy his conscience, but the government still got its money. President Obama has offered Catholic-affiliated organizations a much more generous accommodation. They will be exempted from the contraceptive coverage mandate, but the cost to provide this coverage to their employees with no copayment will be covered by the insurers. The administration asserts that the insurers will make up the expense with the money saved in reduced pregnancy coverage payments.   

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops promptly rebuffed this attempt at compromise. They announced they would pursue, “with no less vigor, no less sense of urgency” a demand that the administration rescind the mandate for everyone “to protect religious liberty and freedom of conscience for all.” It is not enough to preserve their religious liberty that they be exempted from the requirement to fund contraceptive coverage. The only answer that they will accept is that no one can be required to cover it. They only recognize religious freedom if their dogma can nullify secular public health policy. If separation of Church and State means anything, no woman should find herself without access to contraception because of someone else’s religious beliefs.

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