It is sometimes breathtaking to watch the right-wing media/political machine turn a relatively minor dispute into a "war" -- as is now happening over a provision of the health-care law that requires some church-run institutions like hospitals and universities to include contraception coverage in plans offered to female employees.
America's conservative Catholic bishops are up in arms. In the words of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, this is a case of President Barack Obama declaring "war on the Catholic Church." To former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the requirement is an assault on the First Amendment and its guarantee of religious freedom.
This hyperbole has now been picked up by the cable news channels and talk radio, but there has been remarkably little written about the actual merits of these arguments -- and what the role of the government should be when rights clash: women, both Catholic and non-Catholic, who want birth control, and a religious institution whose dogma goes against secular law.
Of course, this argument is as old -- indeed older -- than the Republic. Many of the key Founders strongly opposed the idea of an established religion, knowing how many wars and other human rights abuses sprang from the practice of having official religions in Europe. The Catholic Church was especially egregious, conducting the Inquisition, burning heretics at the stake and encouraging a range of brutal wars.
But most Founders also didn't want to interfere with the practice of religious faith. So, as part of the Bill of Rights, the first U.S. Congress approved an amendment that stated, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." This so-called Establishment Clause, in effect, declared the federal government neutral on the issue of religion. The government would do nothing to promote a faith nor stop adherents from proselytizing their religious views.
But there were always gray areas, including where the government extended some special legal protections to churches and where secular law took precedence over doctrinal teachings. For instance, if a church or sect harmed an individual, it would not be exempt from legal penalties.
In recent years, that supremacy of civil law over actions of a church was demonstrated in connection with the Catholic Church's long-running cover-up of pedophilia cases in which priests who sexually abused boys were shielded by the Church hierarchy, especially by bishops who shuttled abusers from parish to parish. When the pedophilia scandal became public, the Catholic Church was required to reach civil settlements with the victims and agreed to call in police when such acts occurred in the future.
Similarly, secular law prohibited polygamy as practiced by Romney's Mormon faith. Indeed, Romney's grandfather fled to Mexico to evade U.S. laws against a man taking more than one wife. The Mormons later altered their doctrine and banned polygamy.
In Roe v. Wade and other cases, the U.S. Supreme Court also found a constitutional protection for the right of privacy, which includes such matters as a woman having substantial control over her own body. It is fundamentally that civil right which now clashes with the Catholic bishops' determination to block women from obtaining contraception under health insurance offered by church-run institutions, such as hospitals and universities.
The escalation of this into a "war" on the Catholic Church reflects Gingrich's typical incendiary rhetoric that has put to the torch civil debate in the United States over the past three decades. (Gingrich, who has converted to Catholicism and has benefited from its liberal provisions for granting absolution for sins, apparently still sees no obligation to support other Church doctrine, such as caring for the poor and avoiding warfare, not to mention committing many other deadly sins, from pride to greed to wrath.)
To call the requirement for birth-control coverage an assault on the First Amendment, as Romney claims, is equally off-point, since the Catholic Church is not being prevented from professing its curious doctrine against birth control -- nor trying to convince the 98 percent of Catholic women who have used contraceptives that they are going to Hell. The Church is just being told that it can't impose its dogma on employees, many of whom are not even Catholic.
It is a clash of rights -- and in such matters, the First Amendment and other constitutional provisions prevent the federal government from siding with any church over any individual.
As Catholic ethicist Daniel C. Maguire has noted...
"...the American bishops say the administration's [birth control] decision on Jan. 20 was a case of religious freedom. In that, they are right but not in the way they intend it. The bishops are claiming the religious freedom to violate the religious freedom of those who are employed in their institutions or who are served in their tax-supported hospitals. By denying contraception as part of employee health plans, what the bishops seek is more like religious fascism than religious freedom.
"Furthermore, traditional Catholic teaching rests on a tripod, including the hierarchy, the theologians and the sensus fidelium, the experience-fed wisdom of the laity. These three sources of teaching are, as Cardinal Avery Dulles said, 'complementary and mutually corrective.' An accurate look at Catholic teaching on contraception today shows strong support for the position that contraception is not only permissible but even mandatory in many cases.
"Catholic theologians overwhelmingly support contraception. Dozens of Catholic hospitals and universities cover prescribed contraceptives. Ninety-eight percent of Catholic women have used contraceptives. Only 2 percent of Catholic women use the "rhythm method' of birth control favored by conservative Catholics.
"Therefore the decision of the Obama administration, rather than threatening Catholic teaching on contraception, is actually more attuned to actual Catholic teaching than are the American Catholic bishops with their idiosyncratic taboo on contraception."