Noah Millman of the American Conservative asks us to perform a thought experiment: Pretend it’s not the Catholic Church at the center of the current controversy over the rights of religious institutions to exercise moral judgments regarding their employees’ health care plans.
Instead, Millman suggests in a recent commentary, pretend it’s the Church of Scientology.
And pretend that the flash point of controversy isn’t coverage of contraception, which violates Catholic teachings, but coverage of mental-health services — psychology, psychiatry and mood-stabilizing drugs, all of which violate the teachings of Scientology.
If the Scientologists operated a network of schools and hospitals, would the pundit classes be rushing to the ramparts bellowing about religious liberty in defense of the right of these schools and hospitals to deny mental-health coverage even to employees who don’t belong to their faith?
More likely, Millman suggests, the dispassionate public-policy question would be, “Should it be OK to systematically disadvantage employees of Church of Scientology schools because that church has a weird hang-up about mental-health services?”
We’d set aside the origins of this belief (“weird hang-up” is Millman’s phrase, not mine) and weigh the overall pros and cons, the social and medical outcomes, of mandating such coverage.
We’d recognize that our government is, thank goodness, in no position to referee the validity of particular moral claims of faith groups, and that participation in society sometimes requires people, for the greater good, to set aside their weird hang-ups/divinely ordained beliefs and get with the program.
Slightly more than 25 percent of American adults are Catholic, according to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, while the same survey lumped Scientologists into the 1.2 percent, grab-bag category of “new religious movements and other religions.”
In other words, it’s easier to be coldly analytical, even dismissive, of beliefs that aren’t very popular, even though, technically, one of the founding principals of our nation is that religious truth isn’t a popularity contest.
My view is that it’s sound public-health policy to expand low-cost access to contraception. But I’m sympathetic to the idea that, as a matter of conscience, people shouldn’t be compelled to pitch in and pay for products or services they find morally objectionable.
How to resolve these feelings?
First, let’s change the terms of the debate.
Popular usage and appearances aside, employers don’t “provide” health insurance. Employees earn it — at (a shrinking number of) American businesses, insurance is a tax-free part of a benefit package that’s included in overall compensation. Since World War II, tax laws and insurance-industry conventions have made it cost-effective for employers to facilitate and contribute to the purchase of health-insurance packages, leading to the illusion that it’s some kind of gift.
But it’s not a gift, and employers’ moral judgment should no more shape health-insurance options than they should shape employee vacation destination options. And the true threat to freedom of conscience is not a mandate on employers to facilitate the purchase of contraceptives, but a waiver that allows employers the right to deny employees the right to make the decision about what sort of contraceptive coverage they want in the insurance coverage that they’ve earned.
In this light, the issue here is a clash of rights rather than a simple assault on them. And the resolution becomes clear both to me and to my brother from a conservative mother, Noah Millman:
Get employers out of the health-insurance business.