For years progressives in the United States have been stating that the Republicans and their platform simply don't change over time. That back to the time of Reagan and in certain respects back to Hoover and even before him to McKinley, the GOP has been the party of the rich and the Corporate Power. That since Reagan, their platform, dressed up to be sure, has been focused on tax cuts for the rich, the destruction of the pitiful "safety net" that the US has for its poor, the turning back of the clock on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the repeal of environmental, labor, financial markets and workplace regulation, in more recent times joined by a heavy emphasis on using the government to enforce particular religion-based positions on such matters as abortion rights, who can marry whom, the uses of stem-cell research. And so and so forth.
And then an issue bursts on the political scene, an issue that was thought to have been settled by a Supreme Court decisions back in the 1960s, the issue of the private use of contraceptives (see Griswold v. Connecticut, 1965). Now it happens that in the current context, whether non-church or closely church-related Catholic institutions can be required to provide full health insurance coverage for contraceptives is not a matter of religious freedom but rather of employment discrimination (as we shall explain briefly at the end of this column). But here, with a full-throated roar, the Republican Party and their Catholic Bishops wing are making a stand for the Separation of Church and State in no uncertain terms. (Yes indeed, the Catholic bishops do make a practice of making their views known on electoral matters from time-to-time, despite the tax exemptions granted to Houses of Worship. When they do, they almost invariably come out for Republicans.)
Hurrah for them, for they are in the process of changing the whole national debate on such matters as abortion and gay marriage. Although, as noted, they have mis-interpreted the issue of what must be included in health insurance packages as a matter of religious freedom for the Catholic health care institutions, by so doing they have made as strongly as anyone could the arguments in favor of the protection of abortion rights, gay marriage legalization, contraceptive use without interference from the government, and the carrying out of stem cell research without government interference as to the use of the cells and the products of research carried out upon them. Just listen, if you will (or can stand it one might say), to the speeches of Romney, Santorum, Boehner, Peggy Noonan, Limbaugh, Hannity, et al (and there is a very big "al"), on the matter. There they are, striking out for religious freedom on a wide range of practices.
Now, how so? First as to abortion rights. Since Roe v. Wade, (unfortunately in my view) the "pro-choice" forces have carried the battle forth solely on the basis of "protecting a woman's right to choose." That is an important argument, but a more fundamental than it is the right to hold the religious/secular position that life begins at some time other than conception, up to the time of viability. This is one of the vital principles upon which Roe v. Wade rests, by both men and women. In fact, the position that the GOP has held up to now is that not only does life begin at the moment of conception but that any other religious/secular belief, about the matter, whether held by women or men, is to be criminalized.
Thus at its base, the matter of freedom-of-choice in the outcome of pregnancy, up until the time of viability, is a fundamental matter of the freedom of religious/secular belief that is the Constitutional right of all persons, not just pregnant women. This right is fully protected by the provisions of the First Amendment, to wit: " Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. " Thus, fundamentally, since the so-called "pro-life" position is very clearly made on the basis of a particular interpretation of a particular version of the Bible and is widely preached upon by religious leaders of a variety of faiths (as they are fully entitled to do, in the persuasive sense), the right to an abortion is a matter falling under the First Amendment.
There could not be a greater example of the interference of "big government" in the lives of ordinary Americans than what has been the GOP position on abortion rights almost since the day after Roe v. Wade was handed down. And here is the GOP all of a sudden trumpeting the position (incorrectly in the particular instance) that the decision of the Obama Administration on insurance coverage for contraception violates the First Amendment and separation of church and state. One can say only: "Hallelujah. They have seen the light."
Obviously similar arguments apply to the right of two people to marry under existing civil law, regardless of their sexual orientation (the opposition being based on purely religious grounds), the right to use contraceptives without interference on religious grounds (a right that Rick Santorum would like to allow states to eliminate, going back to pre-Griswold v. Connecticut times), and the right for stem cell research to be carried under the usual government regulations regarding biological research and the right of people who would like to take advantage of the results of that research to do so without religiously-based government interference.
My-oh-my. Cannot wait to see the GOP volte face on this one. "You'll be waiting a long time, until hell freezes over," you say? The GOP cannot see the utter contradiction in the position that it is suddenly taking on a matter which they (totally incorrectly) characterize as one of religious liberty when it is rather a matter of employment discrimination, you say? Well, it seems to me that the position I have taken above is the only logical conclusion one can draw from the GOP passion on this issue. They have suddenly discovered the First Amendment; they have suddenly discovered that David Barton and his "there is no wall of separation" position has no basis in historical fact; they have suddenly come out in favor of religious liberty, which surely does apply to abortion rights, gay marriage rights, the use of contraceptives, and stem cell research. Once again, I must say "Hallelujah."
Oh yes, on the employment discrimination issue. Given that no Catholic institution itself would be required under the law to provide abortion or contraceptive services (such a requirement would indeed violate their First Amendment rights), to deny insurance coverage for those of their employees, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, who use contraceptive services, is to discriminate against such employees, based on Catholic religious position of those institutions. If that were to be allowed, next thing you know, an institution that follows Michelle Bachmann's belief that immunization causes mental retardation, perhaps couched in religious terms, could be allowed to eliminate coverage for immunization services. And there you go, right down that slippery slope. So once again, hurrah for the GOP. They have made the case for separation of church and state in matters of religious/secular belief so clear. I just wonder what took them so long.
** I wrote the above column on Feb. 13, 2012. On the 14th I received a communication from Moveon.org stating that Republican Sen. Roy Blunt has introduced legislation that would permit any employer to deny coverage for any health service to which they would claim a religious or moral objection. And there I thought that in this column I was making a sort of joke. But these Republican Religious Authoritarians are not funny.