Apparently, religious freedom = right to break the law and violate employees’ civil rights

Friday, February 10th, 2012 · 31 Comments »

Given the history, I’m not exactly confident that the White House is going to hold the line on the birth control pill debate. I prefer to call it that, rather than the “contraception” debate, because birth control pills are a medication that women take for a lot of reasons, only one of which is contraception. Basically the Catholics are saying they should have the right to deny their employees coverage for a medication that might be used for a purpose they disagree with. Funny, I’m not seeing them complain about Viagra, though I’m 100% sure that Viagra isn’t always used within the context of a Church-approved monogamous marriage.

These are such easy points to make that the Obama administration ought to be able to sew this up with their eyes closed and both hands tied behind their backs. Unfortunately, that whole “women are human” thing is not one of their strong points. And that’s really what this is about. Are women human? Are they U.S. citizens?

Linda Greenhouse, writing in the New York Times, explains what’s at issue:

The regulation doesn’t require anyone to use birth control. It exempts any religious employer that primarily hires and serves its own faithful, the same exclusion offered by New York and California from the contraception mandate in state insurance laws. (Of the other states that require such coverage, 15 offer a broader opt-out provision, while eight provide no exemption at all.) Permitting Catholic hospitals to withhold contraception coverage from their 765,000 employees would blow a gaping hole in the regulation. The 629-hospital Catholic health care system is a major and respected health care provider, serving one in every six hospital patients and employing nearly 14 percent of all hospital staff in the country. Of the top 10 revenue-producing hospital systems in 2010, four were Catholic. The San Francisco-based Catholic Healthcare West, the fifth biggest hospital system in the country, had $11 billion in revenue last year and treated 6.2 million patients.

These institutions, as well as Catholic universities – not seminaries, but colleges and universities whose doors are open to all – are full participants in the public square, receiving a steady stream of federal dollars. They assert – indeed, have earned – the right to the same benefits that flow to their secular peers. What they now claim is a right to special treatment: to conscience that trumps law.

The Pope could issue an encyclical tomorrow announcing that God told him Jews should be denied healthcare and black people should be paid half as much as white people, but you know what? Catholic hospitals and universities wouldn’t have the right to impose that shit. Not here, not in America. They wouldn’t have the right to turn away Jewish patients or discriminate against black employees. Because that shit is against the law. You can get away with a lot of crap in your own little freaky ass church somewhere, but once you’re in the public square, no way Jose. You gotta play by the rules.

Perhaps it’s worth emphasizing that with 765,000 employees in the Catholic hospital system alone and I don’t know how many in the Catholic universities, we’re not talking about private church congregations here. These are just employees, not parishioners. These are doctors and nurses and administrators and professors and teachers and secretaries and orderlies and janitors, many or most of whom aren’t even Catholic.

Denying these female employees basic medical coverage is blatant, indefensible discrimination. This isn’t about contraception; it’s about fundamental civil rights.

UPDATE: Obama has caved, as I knew he would. Another unforced error from a president who is always happy to throw women under the bus in his quest to appease people who will never vote for him anyway.

I’m glad that this “compromise” will enable female employees to still obtain birth control coverage—though the details of how that will work are unclear. But the principle of the thing is all wrong.

Way back in 2000, the EEOC ruled that employers who failed to include birth control coverage in their prescription healthcare plans were in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That’s because the Civil Rights Act forbids discrimination on the basis of sex. The EEOC allowed no exceptions for religious institutions.

What the Obama Administration has done now is to basically reverse that. They’ve said, “You know what? Never mind. That clause in the Civil Rights Act about discrimination on the basis of sex? Forget it. We’ll work around it, bros—you can deny women health coverage if it makes you happy, and we’ll find a way to handle things so you won’t have to be bothered with it. No sweat!”

Furthermore, by framing this as an issue of “religious liberty” (“As a citizen and as a Christian, I cherish this right,” says President Godbag), Obama has capitulated entirely to right wing rhetoric—and to the right wing presumption that the basic civil rights of 51% of the population are purely optional.

31 Responses to “Apparently, religious freedom = right to break the law and violate employees’ civil rights”

  1. Renee Martin says:

    The Pope could issue an encyclical tomorrow announcing that God told him Jews should be denied healthcare and black people should be paid half as much as white people, but you know what? Catholic hospitals and universities wouldn’t have the right to impose that shit. Not here, not in America. They wouldn’t have the right to turn away Jewish patients or discriminate against black employees.

    I agree with your larger point but I felt it necessary to say that whether or not it’s illegal to pay Blacks less, the fact is that it still happens. Black women in particular make less than their White counterparts and even more so when the counterpart is a White male.

  2. Violet Socks says:

    Yes, you are right, unfortunately.

  3. quixote says:

    “This isn’t about contraception; it’s about fundamental civil rights.”

    Exactly. I boggle that something so obvious needs to be explained, but you did a perfect job of it.

  4. Susan says:

    The Catholic Church has gone even farther, now. They are insisting that NO employer be compelled to provide health insurance which covers contraceptives. So, if your local shoe store owner wants to deny employees health care coverage which includes contraceptives, he can do so by simply claiming that it’s contrary to his values.

    This is nothing less than a war on women and the president who will go to the mat for Wall Street any wealthy corporations has already made it clear that he’ll swap women’s rights for any religious zealot’s vote.

    Obama is the worst president that Democrats have ever had.

  5. jackyt says:

    Jerry Falwell, or some such other god marketer, once smugly smirked that the way to become a millionaire is to start a religion. I think in this day and age the way to gain politic traction is to start a religion. I think of Feminist Church of America could be much be much more powerful, and easier to get off the ground, than a Feminist Party of America. Just a thought…

  6. Sameol says:

    I was trying to read Amanda’s explanation of how Obama has once again pwoned the Republicans, but kept getting her piece on “Karen Santorum’s Impure Youth” instead. Now I just want to move to Neptune.

  7. Coises says:

    Does anyone have a reference to how much including no-copay contraception coverage actually increases the cost of a health insurance plan? Though “true believers” on both sides will probably say it doesn’t matter, it seems to me that it does. If the cost is trivial to provide a significant benefit to women (each of whom is perfectly free to act on her own conscience), opposition would seem to be out of spite and vindictiveness. If there is a significant difference, I can see a more respectable reason for resistance.

    Of course, the whole dilemma has its roots in the absurdity of employer-sponsored health “insurance.” Other ostensibly advanced nations don’t use this system. (We only came to use it as a result of a wrinkle in the tax code.) Health care, not “insurance,” should be the focus; but our bi-partisan determination to preserve at all costs opportunities to profit did a quick RU-486 on that notion.

  8. Violet Socks says:

    Sameol, I’m sure Amanda is incapable of acknowledging that Obama has done anything less than perfect.

    People are happy that the result of this agreement is that women will still get contraceptive coverage. And that is a good thing. It’s definitely a good thing. In fact, the mechanism that’s being proposed here—bypassing employers to deal with insurance companies—just points to how ridiculous and limiting it is to have employer-based healthcare in the first place.

    But the principle remains: the White House has agreed that women’s civil rights are negotiable, optional—a matter of religious conscience—and that it’s perfectly fine for religious-affiliated employers to discriminate on the basis of sex. Civil Rights Act? Ignore it. No problem. It’s very nice of the White House to instruct insurance companies to pick up the slack on this issue, but still. There shouldn’t be any slack.

    I’m pretty sure that if this were about anything other than women’s healthcare, people would realize how fucked up this is. What if the Catholics had said they weren’t going to allow their insurance policies to cover AIDS treatment? And what if the White House said, “you know, you’re right! You do have the right to just totally fuck over any employees you want based on medieval bigotry! No prob—we’ll just sort it out some other way.”

    Seriously, if the Catholics or any other group announced that it was against their religious conscience to provide basic healthcare coverage for gay people or Jewish people or black people, would the White House go along with it and get busy arranging a compromise?

  9. ellen says:

    The point that kept coming up to me is that no one is REQUIRED to use birth control. But of course if there is any opportunity to avoid paying for any kind of women’s health care the inclination is to jump right on it.

  10. Violet Socks says:

    If there is a significant difference, I can see a more respectable reason for resistance.

    Really? What?

  11. quixote says:

    Well, after jumping up and down and screaming elsewhere on the web, I’m back here for a rest.

    Turns out, it’s not remotely obvious that this is a matter of rights. Au contraire. It’s all about “Well, we can still get birth control pills, so what’s the problem?”

    The problem is that having the right to control your own health care is different from birth control pills not being taken away yet.

    Aargh. /*still screaming. sorry.*/

  12. blondie says:

    This seems to be turning, more than ever, into a boys against girls fight, even at supposedly progressive fora. In those places, it has been well and thoroughly mansplained to me how completely “stupid”* I am to ask the Obama administration to refuse an “accommodation” to the Catholic bishops’ gripes about this and to simply say something as innocuous as, “Women’s health is important, and BC is important to women’s health. Religious organizations are not entitled to special exemptions from generally applicable laws, and this is one.” But even that is too, too much. Women are just supposed to shut up about the fact that BC access should be beyond the pale and to ignore that it’s now apparently up for grabs. Because, you know, the Republicans are so much worse, and how would you like it if they were in control (threat, threat…).

    *actual word used.

  13. quixote says:

    Anyone talking to mansplainers can point them here, but if they absolutely have to get it from a guy, Charlie Pierce has done a good job. (I don’t know how Violet feels about links to Esquire. They irritate me, personally. Just remove the spaces when you copy the following to your url address bar: ht tp:/ / w ww.


    Violet horning in here with a clickable link to the Esquire piece, because why not: How Obama’s Lady-Parts Deal Empowers the Church

  14. cellocat says:

    Argh. I lost my mind for a minute and started reading the comments over at Charlie Pierce’s place. Bad idea.

  15. Coises says:

    Violet Socks asks:

    Really? What?

    I’ll try to explain… it’s taking a lot of words, probably because I’m trying to (partially) defend a position I don’t hold myself.

    Firstly, we are considering the perspective of those who have a “moral objection” to contraception. I don’t; you don’t; but that’s the vantage point we have to assume if we’re to make any sense of this.

    Their argument, then, is that they are being told they must actively support — with money that could otherwise be reflected in higher salaries, more or lower cost services, or whatever — something which they believe is wrong.

    The counter-argument is that these employers (as I understand it, churches and similar organizations that have essentially no secular component are exempt), while they have a religious affiliation, are fully a part of the general society; and as a society we have decided that employer-provided health care should include support for contraception.

    We do tend to accept religion as rationale for positions which, if idiosyncratic, we would simply reject, saying, tough: you can believe what you want, but you still have to do it / not do it / pay it / whatever, like everybody else.

    Frankly, I find all these arguments somewhat specious; but the argument for not supporting something one considers wrong is more believable if the cost is non-trivial. If it is trivial, then the money has nothing to do with it; and it’s really all about gaining whatever leverage they can to work against individuals’ freedom to use contraception.

    I suspect — and I suspect you and most of your readers do, too — that the latter is the case: it’s all about using whatever means might be available to reduce access to contraception by those who would choose to use it. That position I can’t respect… my point was that if there is very little cost involved, that pretty much closes the case for me. If the cost is significant, I still would prefer that employers with religious affiliation not get special treatment, but at least I can concede that there might be a respectable argument for it.

    Just to clarify:

    Personally, I think making low- or no-cost contraception available unconditionally to anyone who wants it would be very wise public policy.

    Health “insurance” is the wrong word, the wrong focus, the wrong system. Employer-provided health insurance just doubles down on the crazy. Since we’re stuck with that at least for now, though, public policy has to be somehow shoe-horned in there.

    Exemptions for religion are a double-edged sword. Though on the surface they usually appear wrong to me, there are times they can provide a fulcrum for first amendment protections to be recognized that would otherwise be unable to gain purchase. On the whole, when the need for religious exemption is an issue, it probably means there’s something more basic that’s screwed up.

    President Obama’s “compromise” solves nothing and will satisfy no one. I sometimes wonder at how dumb he must think we are.

  16. blondie says:

    Oops, I forgot one of the mansplaints — this is eleventy-dimension chess, by which Obama is WINNING again, you whiny bimbo. He gamed this out months in advance. Don’t you understand anything? You and your silly ideals about women being actual human beings. Just don’t forget that you need us, or you’ll be stuck with the “real” woman haters.

  17. Violet Socks says:

    Oh my goodness. Coises, thanks so much, but no thanks. Though it was nice of you to try not to use too many words.

    By the way, it’s been settled law for 20 years that religious “conscience” provides no exemption from general law (Employment Division v. Smith).

    It’s also settled law that the 1964 Voting Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.

    edited to fix my typo — VS

  18. Violet Socks says:

    By the way, folks, I have to say that #15 is one of the most spectacular examples of mansplaining I’ve ever seen. I had to go to the guy’s website to see if he was real and not some kind of mansplaining script bot.

    Coises, your heart’s in the right place, but check it: we’re not idiots. Even though we have vaginas. Thank you.

  19. Adrienne in CA says:

    Any chance this weasel-out will be found unconstitutional? Yeah, I know — fat chance.

    So the Catholics get a free pass on discrimination. I’d hope that insurance companies would at least raise rates on Catholic institutions for costing them more money. What’ll probably happen instead is that suddenly a lot more religions will develop moral objections to birth control. Then the insurance companies will all get together and form their own religion (Greedism?), and we’ll all be fucked.

  20. Carmonn says:

    What’s hilarious is that just a few months ago when federal funding was yanked from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, they were crying religious bigotry. It’s not only bigotry to not permit them to discriminate with federal money, it’s bigotry to not provide them with federal funding at all. The Catholic Church sure is special. We really should just form a religion and then demand that the entire treasury be turned over to us. We could be really magnanimous and promise to actually follow civil rights law, not that it matters, clearly.

  21. blondie says:

    I want to quit serial posting, but you and digby are among the few well-written blogs (that I know of, no offense others) who understand women are actual people, and maybe it’s not cool to treat our health as poker chips. So, would you please excuse my profanity if the boybloggers today have made me want to yell through gritted teeth, “Mutherfcuk!!!”

    (please feel free to censor if this isn’t okay)

  22. Violet Socks says:

    Serial posting is fine. I’ve just been circling through the blogs myself, and god all fucking mighty. Yep, we should just shut up and be grateful. RECOGNIZE.

  23. blondie says:

    Thanks for being here, Vi (if you’ll excuse the informality).

  24. Violet Socks says:

    Reading around, I see that early today (before Obama’s announcement), Kevin Drum wrote one of the most sensible things he’s ever written:

    Some matters of conscience are worth respecting and some aren’t. If, say, Catholic doctrine forbade white doctors from treating black patients, nobody would be defending them. The principle of racial nondiscrimination is simply too important to American culture and we’d insist that the church respect this.

    Exactly. And this is in fact a matter of settled law, not just a philosophical position.

    But what Obama has now done is to overturn all that. To extend Drum’s analogy, it’s as if Obama has agreed that Catholic hospitals do have the right to withhold care from black patients. The administration will just supply a workaround by making sure that more accommodating doctors are available on standby or next door or something.

    Now if that were really what had happened today—if Obama had agreed that it’s acceptable for Catholic hospitals to withhold care from black patients—do you think it would be characterized as a “win”? Do you think it would be called a brilliant checkmate? Even if the net result is that black patients get care, the principle of racial nondiscrimination has been thrown out the window.

    Drum goes on to say:

    I think the same is true today of the principle of nondiscrimination against women, as well as the principle that women should have control of their own reproduction.

    Well, kind of a funny thing there, Kev. Legally speaking, the principle of nondiscrimination against women has certainly been established—at least it was established up until the President threw it out the window just now. But it’s pretty obviously not established in the hearts and minds of our countrymen and self-hating countrywomen, is it? Witness said fact that the President just tossed it out the window, and the left wing cheering section is calling it brilliant and demanding that women shut the fuck up and be grateful.

  25. Violet Socks says:

    By the way, to be clear: I am definitely glad that the agreement provides for women to still get their birth control covered (somehow). I fully understand why groups like PP and so on are relieved; this could be so much worse.

    But that shouldn’t blind us to the reality that there was no reason for this cave-in at all. No legal reason, no political reason. None. The EEOC has been enforcing the birth control rule for 12 years. The Supreme Court ruled 22 years ago that religion provides no exemption from normal law.

    It seems to me that the net result here is that women get the contraception coverage they were promised, plus now the administration has enshrined into its regulations that it’s okay to discriminate on the basis of sex (screw the Civil Rights Act! screw the EEOC!) and that doing so really is an issue of “religious liberty,” just like the wingnuts said.

  26. Swannie says:

    No one questions the Catholic Church imposing their belief system on secular systems , which bothers me just as much as the idea of any intrusion into the First Amendment , but it is not about the first amendment at all.
    And now we have people questioing the COST AS IF they did not know that contraceptive care save billions upon billions .

  27. Alice Molloy says:

    Seems like they’ve gone from religious freedom to religious domination.

  28. Three Wickets says:

    Jake Tapper facebook thread..

    Woman commenter: I have never understood and will never understand why I have to pay for someone else’s birth control. You wanna play – THEN PAY!

    Roger Ailes: I have never understood and will never understand why I have to pay for someone else’s insulin, cancer surgery or bypass surgery. Or caesarian section, or fetal or pediatric surgery. You wanna play –THEN PAY. OR DIE. I DON”T REALLY CARE AND I DON’T UNDERSTAND THE CONCEPT OF INSURANCE.

    Roger Ailes runs FoxNews, so a little cognitive dissonance lol. Anyhoo.

  29. Sweet Sue says:

    There’s Roger Ailes, the monster who runs Fox News and there’s Roger Ailes, the liberal blogger.
    Personally, if I were the latter, I’d change my name to something more palatable like Adolph Hitler.

  30. Sameol says:

    Roger Ailes (err, “the other” Roger Ailes) has a progressive humor blog. Despite his disturbing tendency to quote sexist gits (usually when they’re not making sexist remarks, though), it’s pretty funny.

  31. Three Wickets says:

    Thx. :)