Same-sex marriage, health care reform, & contraception

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In a public policy ballet of unintended symmetry, President Obama announced his support of same-gender marriage the same week that the University of Notre Dame sued the federal government about birth control (For the moment we’ll ignore the poetic irony of UND granting Obama an honorary doctorate just 3 years ago). Notre Dame (and 5 other Catholic universities) claims that the federal regulations requiring insurers and group health plans to cover contraception and sterilization infringes on their religious freedom.

The juxtaposition of the two issues offers a tidy lesson in civics.

I. The American government (and all 50 states) gives special privileges to people who marry. Therefore, all people must be eligible for marriage—regardless of race, ethnicity, intelligence, or sexual orientation. No one would get special government privileges from marriage equality: not gays, not non-gays. Religious institutions, of course, would still be free to limit their marriage (and birth, confirmation, and burial) ceremonies to whomever they please.

II. The government recently passed a law that will help people afford the costs of contraception and sterilization—if they want such services. It originally required all insurance plans to cover these services; in February the government caved in and agreed to exempt religious organizations—which employ hundreds of thousands of Americans—from this obligation.

Under the new health care laws, churches and morality groups are still free to proselytize their employees, and to continue hammering Americans (and their government representatives), about the evils of contraception, abortion, and non-marital or non-coital sex.

What employers like Notre Dame should NOT be allowed to do is present their employees with a substandard work environment. Just because they have strong religious feelings (yawn), their workplaces shouldn’t be less safe, less free of harassment, or offer less healthcare protection. It’s the government’s job to make sure Notre Dame meets the current minimum standards of the American workplace, whatever they are. It’s not the government’s job to help Notre Dame shape its employees’ private behavior to suit its vision of personal morality.

In a country that’s noticeably hurting from inequities in the distribution of health care—and in which every taxpayer pays for the ill health of poor people, including their use of expensive emergency rooms for basic care—President Obama has spearheaded a historic plan to guarantee basic health care to most Americans. It’s astonishing to see some people resisting this progress, and in 25 years our children will be astonished that anyone did.

Because over 95% of the sex Americans will have this week is NOT intended to lead to pregnancy, contraception is a basic aspect of health care. Considering the billions of dollars that unintended pregnancy costs American taxpayers every year, you’d think the basic need for contraception would be clear. You’d think everyone claiming to be a fiscal conservative (motto: “Helping poor people afford food, clothing, or shelter is irresponsible”) would be DEMANDING free contraception for anyone who wants it—especially if they have trouble paying for it. But a fiscal conservative, it seems, is a person who believes that the government should only subsidize the activity of people who don’t need subsidies.

Notre Dame and other religious employers are enormous beneficiaries of government largess. They avoid paying millions of dollars in taxes on their property and their businesses. They receive millions in federal research dollars, building funds, housing funds, and student loans. People are encouraged to donate money to these institutions by generous government subsidies; for every $1,000 I give Notre Dame, for example, the government deducts over $300 from my tax bill.

Notre Dame and every other Catholic university (and every church) in America is sucking at the government teat, big time. They have no complaint about being in bed with godless Washington when money is flowing toward them. But when Washington issues the smallest requirement—that the employees of these institutions have the OPTION of using contraception that is covered by insurance—the institutions blanch, staggering backward under the horror, the horror, of violating their religious beliefs.

No one who works at Notre Dame or its cousins (which includes thousands of non-Catholics) is being forced to use contraception. If Notre Dame or the Church it serves can’t persuade their own employees to abstain from contraception, it should ask itself why— and grapple with its own bizarre, life-denying, anti-sex policies. Instead, distrusting its own flock, it wants the government to make an exception, punishing the flock by not requiring that their workplace meet the minimum standard of American workplaces.

Catholic universities want it both ways—they want the privileges awarded to “religious” institutions, while claiming exemption from the normal rules and obligations of civil society.

They justify their gigantic taxpayer subsidies by claiming they promote Americans’ “morality”—while attempting to deny basic rights to several million Americans simply because they believe differently.

Religion in America—what a racket. You get money, political power, and a bully pulpit. You get to demand that non-believers behave as you do, and that the government help you whip your flock into shape. You get to say that the law should reflect your twisted version of “morality.”

And what do you have to do in return? Absolutely nothing—except say it all with a straight face, pretending that it not only makes sense, but that it’s fair.


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