Why Does President Obama Dislike Freedom of Conscience?

February 6, 2012 • Commentary
This article appeared in Forbes on February 6, 2012.

Authoritarian liberalism has taken over Obama administration policy. People must be forced to accept anything and everything in the name of tolerance. The only valid belief is no belief. Acting on one’s faith must be punished.

Such is the impact of the new Department of Health and Human Services ruling on birth control (as well as abortifacients, or “morning after” pills, and sterilization procedures). Even religious organizations must provide policies offering full coverage with no shared payment. Never mind if the people involved believe that contraception is morally wrong.

ObamaCare, which vastly expands federal control over American health care, suffers manifold flaws. One of the most obvious is further taking insurance out of “health insurance.”

Insurance is supposed to counter the risk of unlikely but potentially catastrophic events, such as having an accident or contracting cancer. Using birth control, a voluntary, routine and inexpensive decision, obviously is not such an occurrence. “Insuring” against something over which one has full control makes no sense.

Mandating coverage of these and other voluntary choices—such as using Viagra, for instance—effectively turns “insurance” into prepayment of discretionary medical expenses, raising costs. Premiums must rise enough to cover the extra procedure, inflated by the increased demand due to the zero marginal price, as well as the administrative expense of reimbursing people for every birth control pill (or other procedure/​product) purchased. Imagine if auto “insurance” covered routine maintenance and even gasoline fill‐​ups. Yet this perversion of “health insurance” already is far advanced, and has contributed to the dramatic rise in health care costs in recent years.

An insurance plan might decide that the cost of covering birth control (or sterilization or abortifacients) is balanced by lower expenses for unwanted pregnancies. That’s undoubtedly one reason an estimated nine of ten plans voluntarily cover contraception. But coverage should be an economic, not a political, decision left to insurers and insured.

Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, termed the issue a matter of “women’s rights.” Planned Parenthood exulted that the rule would save women $15 to $50 a month. Nancy Keenan, president of the pro‐​abortion group NARAL, proclaimed that “All women should have access to contraceptive coverage, regardless of where they work.”

But what makes contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients more important than life‐​saving treatment for cancer and other deadly diseases, which receive less complete coverage? And contraception still will not be free, since women will be paying increased premiums—for something a number of them would not freely choose.

Most important, access is not the issue since birth control is legal everywhere. Instead, the administration diktat simply forces everyone who does not use birth control (or uses birth control less than average) to pay for everyone else. Advocates of the contraception/​sterilization/​abortifacient mandate just want to subsidize their favored “treatments.” To them it doesn’t matter if men or even women don’t want to pay or be paid for this “benefit.”

The requirement would be bad policy even if it was just another of the 2000 different mandates already imposed by the federal and state governments. But the rule violates the core religious beliefs of millions of Americans.

Those who get insurance on their own or through secular employers will be forced to pay for a product or procedure for themselves and others which they view as sinful. Religious organizations will be forced either to provide the same coverage or drop health insurance entirely, leaving their employees uncovered while paying a sizable penalty to the federal government. Indeed, numerous Catholic bishops have said that the Church will not comply with the rule. And Catholic Charities dropped spousal coverage when the District of Columbia mandated coverage for gay partners. People already sacrificing the most to help others will suffer as a result.

It doesn’t matter what others think of the religious teachings involved. Many Catholics and some fundamentalist Protestants believe birth control to be wrong, and to underwrite contraception for others would make them accomplices to sin. Even worse are abortifacients, viewed by many people as the equivalent of abortion, which is opposed by even more Christians (as well as members of other faiths) as immoral killing.

While the Obama administration did not attempt to force churches to cover birth control—believers should be grateful for small favors!—it refused to grant any exemption for other religious organizations, which employ between one and two million people. Thomas Messner of the Heritage Foundation pointed to “a wide range of objecting institutions, including religious charities, hospitals, colleges, nursing homes, and universities.”

Technically the rule only mandates coverage by organizations which serve people of other faiths, but what Catholic hospital, for instance, is going to refuse to treat Protestants, Jews, and Muslims? What Christian college will bar non‐​Christians? If believers band together to educate children, treat the sick, or aid the poor, the Obama administration insists that they must violate their other religious beliefs.

All the administration is willing to offer is a year delay, to August 2013. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius proclaimed that “This proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services.”

But the rule represents no balance at all. Religious believers must sacrifice their faith. They just get a temporary stay of execution. Complained Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: “In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences.” Even the Washington Post editorialized that the administration failed to “make an adequate accommodation for those deeply held views. Having recognized the principle of a religious exemption, the administration should have expanded it.”

Yet in the Twilight Zone on the American Left it is Christians who are attempting to impose their views. Religious liberty, declared the ACLU’s Melling, “does not give religious groups the right to impose their beliefs on others.” Not wanting to pay for someone else’s decision to engage in what one views as immoral behavior now is defined as imposing one’s beliefs. George Orwell, call your office!

What do the administration’s religious supporters think of this direct attack on religious faith? Although the rule is supported by some churches which typically view politics as the only real transcendent, a number of believers on the Left are unhappy. For instance, the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne accused the administration of tossing “his progressive Catholic allies under the bus.”

The president has spoken eloquently about the relationship of religion and politics, proclaiming his desire to “honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion.” But the rule demonstrates extraordinary insensitivity, if not outright hostility, to faith. Indeed, Washington Times columnist Jeffrey Kuhner argued that the “administration has declared war on the Catholic Church and religious liberty.” That may be giving administration officials too much credit for malice aforethought, but more than a few people do wish religious believers ill.

The American Spectator’s Jim Antle pointed out that “You don’t have to look very far to find comments suggesting that this rule is a good way to stick it to churches whose social teachings are deemed too reactionary.” Some people would like to see the government put religious groups out of business, or at least stop them from doing anything other than holding an occasional private worship service.

The administration’s attack on religion vividly demonstrates the underlying danger of the ever‐​expanding federal welfare state. As government takes over ever more private responsibilities, it imposes the beliefs of those who have seized control of the state. In practice today that usually means a secularist and paternalist orientation. Indeed, for decades authoritarian liberals have been working assiduously, despite the efforts of the Religious Right, to turn the national government into “an instrument of culture war,” as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat put it. He worries that the current fight is “an intimation of a darker American future, in which our voluntary communities wither away and government becomes the only word we have for the things we do together.”

Such an apocalyptic vision might be an exaggeration, but for decades government has been consciously constricting the private, voluntary sphere of life. Educational and social services of all sorts once were provided by private and especially religious institutions. Government has increasingly pushed them aside.

First, people are less likely to give their own resources when government is seen as “taking care” of the problem. Second, just as Gresham’s law tells us that bad money pushes out good, government welfare pushes out private charity. After all, why seek private aid tied to personal reform if government offers an easier payout?

Third, many private organizations are non‐​governmental in name only, receiving most of their resources from government. With money naturally come restrictions, which typically weigh most heavily on religious organizations with a faith to spread. Through Bill Clinton’s AmeriCorps and George W. Bush’s faith‐​based initiative the government even pays volunteers to work for private charities and directly funds religious groups.

Now the Obama administration is using its broader regulatory power to suppress the very religious values which make faith‐​based organizations unique. Freedom of conscience is a bedrock liberty, inherent to the human person created in the image of God, not a privilege based on the whim of the state. Yet under the administration rule even if you don’t take Caesar’s coin you will find it hard to avoid his idolatrous demands.

Facing a potentially difficult reelection, the president could decide to expand the exemption before November. Congress also could legislate an exemption, as proposed by Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE).

But such steps merely would treat symptoms. The purpose of ObamaCare is to shift health care decisions to Washington. In this case, religious believers are merely collateral damage. Washington should not be writing health insurance policies for Americans, whatever their faith. ObamaCare should be repealed for this reason alone.

However, the threat posed by Washington to Americans’ liberties goes far beyond medicine. The contraception rule should act as a clarion call for religious believers to resist the continued expansion of state power even for supposedly beneficent purposes. The regulation is a direct attack on religious faith with no serious, let alone compelling, justification.

President Obama once said that freedom of conscience is important. Yet his administration has decided that forcing people to subsidize the choice to have sex is more important than protecting the right to act on one’s deepest religious beliefs. Authoritarian liberalism is the new governing philosophy in Washington.

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