Tuesday, 3 July 2012

View from America: Healthcare and contraception – whose 'religious freedom' is it anyway?

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To coincide with the publication of his new book How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom (Houghton-Mifflin) we will be posting a series of short films and blog posts by Jacques Berlinerblau, one of the most perceptive commentators on America’s religious and irreligious landscape.

In his first dispatch he discusses how President Obama’s health reforms are going down with America’s Catholic Bishops.

Welcome to Berlinerblau’s Secular Center, please feel free to give us your views in the comments.
The Secular Center, Episode One: Whose “Religious Freedom” is it Anyway?
With the United States Supreme Court handing Barack Obama a stunning victory on health care this past week, the media has mostly ignored The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ ongoing “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign.

Fortnight for Freedom is a two-week protest against the Obama administration’s Health and Human Services mandates. The mandates – requiring most insurance providers to cover contraception for women free of charge in their health plans – have been understood by the bishops to be a massive violation of “religious liberty”.

Perhaps because it has been a rather busy week in DC, and perhaps because Washington is experiencing its annual Crippling Power Outage, and perhaps because the HHS controversy has been lava-spewing all year, the press hasn’t rally paid much attention to this latest eruption. But don’t take your eyes off the volcano.

As I have noted elsewhere, when traditionalist Catholics and White Conservative Evangelicals join in common cause they are an electoral force to be reckoned with (think of the so-called “values voters” who handed the presidency to fledging incumbent George W. Bush 2004). Although they do not share the Church’s doctrinal disapproval of contraception, the aforementioned Evangelicals have gladly joined in the scrum. And this is why the current silence surrounding “Fortnight for Freedom” initiative is deceptive.

With the Right whipped up into a frenzy about the last week’s Supreme Court ruling and with Obama and Romney locked in a close race, the “religious freedom” issue could become pivotal in the November elections. In fact, the latter term is quickly becoming a rallying cry in conservative precincts and the Bishops, perhaps inadvertently, are leading the way.

Understanding the volatility of the situation, the Obama administration did suggest a compromise back in March. Here the insurance companies themselves would foot the bill for contraception. Under the proposed accommodation, the Catholic Church would not be directly subsidising behaviours it finds immoral. But the Bishops again found this use of “third-party administrators” unacceptable (though in their defence there is some ambiguity about how completely self-insured Catholic institutions would go about availing themselves of a third-party).

The Catholic Church has again and again insisted that this is not a “contraception” issue, but a “religious freedom” issue. This is where today’s pilot episode of The Secular Center takes its cue. For even by the logic of “religious freedom” arguments, there is a glaring contradiction in the Bishops’ position.

I’ll let you watch the episode to figure out what that contradiction is, but suffice it to say that “religious freedom” must entail the freedom of Catholics to practice their religion in ways that don’t align with the counsels of the Bishops. Lest we forget, freedom from someone else’s conception of religion is also “religious freedom.”

I hope you enjoy Episode One of The Secular Center, an attempt to reclaim the term “secular” from foes and occasionally even friends. We’ll be ramping up production in the coming weeks and we look forward to hearing your comments and thoughts on the show the issues we examine.

Jacques Berlinerblau is an associate professor of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. His forthcoming book is How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom (Houghton-Mifflin)
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