More Thoughts on the Wall of Separation

In my previous post I shared my thoughts on the recent Supreme Court decision that allows church affiliated organizations (specifically schools) to defy the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) so long as the person being discriminated against is a “minister” of the church. The premise is that our government cannot dictate how churches choose their leaders. It breaches the wall of separation between church and state. I won’t  repeat my objection here but suffice it to say the Supreme Court chose a very poor case to make their point.

The nation is now debating another religious brouhaha prompted by the department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Recently HHS ruled that any employer who provides health insurance to their employees must cover contraception, sterilization procedures and the “morning after” pill. This includes Catholic affiliated hospitals which, based on Catholic dogma, oppose contraception. The Catholic church is crying foul and claiming that HHS is breaching the wall of separation by inhibiting “the free practice” of their religion. It should be noted that the HHS ruling does not affect churches per se. A church and a church affiliated institution are two different things.

Unlike some of my smug conservative readers I don’t know with 100% certainty what was on the minds of the Founding Fathers when the establishment clause of the First Amendment was written. To my mind the clause protects religious groups from persecution by the government as well as favoritism or advantage from the government. Now we need to define terms. What is a religious group? A religious group is a group of (mostly) like-minded individuals who share a common spiritual concept of our origins, our destiny and the proper way to conduct ourselves in the here and now. A religious group is not a group of secular teachers. It is not a group of doctors. It is not a group of scientists. It is not a group engaged in commerce.

In my previous post I wrote about a religious group (the Lutherans) who poked their nose into the teaching of secular subjects but then wanted to maintain enough of a shred of religiosity to be protected by the First Amendment. Similarly, Catholic affiliated hospitals dip their toe into the purely secular sphere of providing health care and employing people (doctors, nurses, orderlies, cafeteria staff, etc.) of various faiths but want to claim just enough religiosity to deny insurance coverage for contraception from their employees. If every other non-religious-affiliated business with a moral objection to contraception must provide insurance coverage for it, why should the Catholic church be any different?

There is a dilemma here. Part of most religious faiths is to care for others. Those faiths with the funds to do so can set up health care facilities and hire professionals to provide care in those facilities.  Surely this is a good thing. This is something we want to encourage. The dilemma arises when the dogma of the faith flies in the face of common sense medical practice. Most Catholics practice birth control. The official position of the Church is so out of touch with reality that all but the most ardent of its followers find it laughable. The simple fact is if you want to practice medicine in the 21st century and you want to minimize the instances of abortion then birth control is the most sensible option. Catholic or not, if you are in the health care business and you decry the use of birth control, then you really shouldn’t be in the health care business in the first place.

I think the bigger question posed by both the SCOTUS case and the HHS ruling is when a religion crosses the line into secular society and provides secular services to a non-sectarian audience should those secular practices be protected by the establishment clause? In my opinion, they should not. The government will not tell you how to preach. The government will not tell you how to choose your ministers. But the government, in my opinion, can and should dictate whether your secular practices are consistent with American law and regulations.

While I think it would be a terrible loss if every Catholic affiliated hospital shut its doors, I also believe that the minute they choose to hire people of all faiths and serve people of all faiths they must abide by the employment practices of every other institution in this country. If that involves offering insurance coverage for contraception, so be it.


Image: Danilo Rizzuti / Political Blogger Alliance