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Published: Saturday, 2/18/2012

COMMENTARY

Obama plan balances religious values and public welfare

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COLUMNIST

Recently, I wrote about being conflicted over a new-health-care mandate that would require employers, even those with religious affiliations, to provide insurance coverage for all federally approved birth control, free of charge. I encouraged conversation to consider diverse views.

Many of you responded with thoughtful comments. Others reacted with faith-based vitriol. Since the latter advanced rants rather than reasoned arguments, I wasted little time reading them.

Fortunately, there were emails with a point. Sam Osborne noted the "grievous matter of conscience being suffered by American Catholic bishops."

He suggested that "rather than announcing at Mass that there is an open letter to members of government in the vestibule that parishioners can sign in objection to the aforementioned matter of conscience, the attending faithful might be more directly told that there is a sign-up sheet on which the faithful should pledge faithful adherence to the bishops' teaching on this matter."

From Florida, Jack Pierce emailed that he found my omission of "abortion-inducing drugs" from the discussion to be troubling. "If you are a Catholic you cannot, in good conscience, choose any form of abortion. You are not conflicted. For you, liberalism triumphs all."

A Catholic woman, Judy Roberts, advised that I revisit church doctrine on contraception to understand its "moral and spiritual" perspective.

"After learning about the underpinnings of the church's teachings on contraception, many intelligent, educated women accept it, not out of blind obedience, but informed understanding," she wrote.

Marge of Sylvania had a different take.

"Isn't it strange that old men who never had to worry about pregnancy are dictating about contraception?" she said. "If you polled women of child-bearing age, including Catholics, I'm sure you would find very close to 100 percent believe contraception is not immoral."

Listening to the bishops' case against the Obama Administration, delivered by a priest from a pulpit, was jarring. This holy battle over universal coverage of preventive services for women is really political.

The church hierarchy is very conservative. It is committed to retaining control, dictating from on high, and squashing disparate opinions — not unlike any other huge organization that wants to safeguard its interests.

As the largest Christian church in the world, with more than 1 billion members, and the largest religious denomination in the United States, with an estimated membership of 77 million, the Catholic Church wields enormous political influence. During a highly contentious race for the White House, the bishops' nationwide rage against the incumbent administration is calculated to affect the outcome of this year's election.

This is about getting rid of ObamaCare and defeating its champion, who is running for re-election. Church leaders frame their fight as a righteous defense of religious liberty.

But the issue of providing birth control access in nearly every employee's health insurance plan, regardless of an employer's religious beliefs, isn't about attacking freedom of religion. We are free to practice any or no religion.

If this were an assault on that First Amendment right, I'd be standing shoulder to shoulder with the bishops. But providing women with access to free preventive care, including contraceptive services, is about complying with the rule of law that has been legislated and passed for the greater good.

Rebecca Zietlow, a University of Toledo professor of constitutional law, said the courts have interpreted the Constitution to say: You do have to follow law that generally applies to everyone, even if it has an impact on religion.

Existing case law, she noted, holds that "if what the government is telling you to do is not intended to discriminate against some religion, including yours, than compliance doesn't violate free exercise of religion."

In a culture with so many diverse religious beliefs, Ms. Zietlow added, society has to regulate itself in a way that makes sense for most.

"It's up to the political branches of government to balance" religious values with public welfare, she said.

The Obama Administration did that by exempting houses of worship from the birth control rule, and then by accommodating religiously affiliated universities and hospitals that opposed contraceptive coverage by making insurance companies directly responsible for providing free contraception.

Continued blowback from the bishops doesn't stand a prayer of promulgation — thank God.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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