President Obama’s health care legislation, the Affordable Care Act, requires all employers to provide health insurance with free access to contraceptives, including Catholic employers. Though narrow exemptions had previously been made for churches, Friday morning’s announcement of the exemption of all Catholic employers, from hospitals to schools and universities, resolves what was cited as fundamentally against their belief.
Despite the calls of unconstitutionality of this mandate and the significant media attention it’s received thus far, there’s an alarming sense of complacency from nearly everyone who isn’t adamantly against the use of contraceptives. Although the issue does come down to the question about whether Catholics should be required to provide contraception to their employees, many who disagree with their protesting the mandate fail to look at the larger picture at hand. Too many involved say that they’re not Catholic or they use contraception, so the debate doesn’t matter to them.
In initially refusing to exempt Catholic employers from this mandate, the federal government is falling into dangerous territory, where it deems its own legislation more important than the beliefs of an established religion; something that is supposed to be protected by the First Amendment. The absence of an exemption would not just result in the requirement that Catholics provide contraception to employees, but would create a precedent in which in certain cases, the federal government can disregard the First Amendment in order to implement its policies. And as we all know, when the federal government takes up extra powers, it has a history of accumulating more.
Requiring Catholic employers to provide insurance with contraceptives is equal to requiring a Jewish store owner to provide ham to his employees for lunch every day or an atheist to somehow make free Bibles available to his employees. Surely, either scenario would cause significant outcry from the general public because of its absurd requirements. People would cite their First Amendment rights and cry out about the need to separate church and state. But alas, that is unduly missing from the Catholic contraception debate.
Finally, proponents of the mandate talk about the necessity to provide contraception for “women’s health.” Although contraception certainly is convenient for those who use it, it’s no more a “women’s health” issue than a tube of Chapstick or a bottle of hand lotion. Contraception (except in rare cases) is not a matter of life or death. It is not treatment for a terminal illness, nor will it improve the health of those who use it. It merely relieves the concern of becoming pregnant. Calling contraceptives a necessity for the well-being of women is an extreme overstatement, not to mention the mandate would not make them unavailable altogether, but would not require exempt employers distribute it for free through their insurance.
Catholic employers aren’t asking to be exempt from providing treatment for cancer, serious injury, or any other significant health care service. They’re simply asking to be able to uphold their fundamental religious beliefs, something, I might add, the federal government was created to protect and rightly amended the mandate to do. Although Catholics are on one side of this debate, it’s not a Catholic issue. It’s a First Amendment issue. It’s a larger question about whether or not your beliefs are less important than those of a party symbol in Washington. It’s not a Catholic issue, but an American one.
Allie Bedell can be contacted at