A question arises from the recent controversy between President Obama and the Catholic Church that aches for an answer: If Catholic institutions have a right to abstain from paying for what morally offends them, why don't the rest of us?
The initial ObamaCare rule held that all employers, in fulfilling their new legal requirement to provide health insurance to their employees, must include contraception (and other "preventive" health services) in the coverage at no cost. The Catholic Church teaches that contraception is sinful. The Department of Health and Human services was willing to exempt churches but not church-operated institutions that pursue a broader mission than religious teaching, such as colleges, hospitals, and charities. This brought protests from Catholic officials, who claim that their religious freedom would be infringed by a mandate that they buy services that they teach are morally abhorrent.
As the political controversy mounted, the Obama administration devised an "accommodation": those institutions would not have to pay for birth-control coverage; however, their insurers would still have to offer free contraception.
Many objections can be raised against this policy. In a society that thinks itself free, how dare the government force employers to provide health insurance? How dare it mandate that coverage include contraception — or any particular service? How dare it mandate that any coverage be free? (It can't really be free; the coverage necessarily reduces employees' cash wages.) How can contraception use be insurable when it is a chosen act, not the kind of low-probability, high-cost event that insurance was designed to protect against? Is there really a moral difference between forcing a Catholic institution to pay for employee contraception and forcing it to arrange a match between its employees and an insurer that will provide the contraception?
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Sheldon Richman (photo) is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of The Freeman magazine.