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FIRST-PERSON: The debate is about conscience, not contraceptives

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP) — Let’s begin by making one thing crystal clear. The debate generated by the Obama administration’s requirement that virtually all health care insurance plans provide free contraceptives, abortifacients (abortion-causing drugs) and sterilization services is not a debate about contraception or “reproductive services.”

This debate is about coercion, not Catholics; conscience, not contraception; and freedom, not fertility.

We believe as Americans that every human being has a God-given right of freedom of faith and conscience. Due to our forefathers’ persecutions, persistence and insistence, this freedom is acknowledged and recognized in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The “free exercise of religion” goes well beyond the “freedom of worship” concept so often used today by those who fail to understand, or reject, the Constitution’s religious freedom protections. For them freedom of worship is restricted to church and home, to the space between your ears and the space between your shoulders. But free exercise of religion is far more robust and includes the rights to share one’s faith and to live out its implications in the social and economic spheres — in other words, the freedom to exercise or act and the right not to be coerced. We must not stand by and allow our God-given rights to religious freedom, guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, to be atrophied, confined and restricted into mere freedom of worship.

The Obama administration’s recent actions, as Cardinal Dolan said in his Feb. 22 letter to his fellow Catholic bishops, “have attempted to reduce this free exercise to a ‘privilege’ arbitrarily granted by the government as a mere exemption from an all-encompassing, extreme form of secularism.” Cardinal Dolan has hit the proverbial nail on the head. This controversy is about conscience, not contraception. In America our First Amendment freedom of religion does not depend on government benevolence or toleration. Typical of the secular mindset dominating the media and the higher precincts of the Obama administration is the misguided declaration of New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristoff who wrote in a recent column (Feb. 22): “The basic principle of American life is that we try to respect religious beliefs, and accommodate them when we can.”

Given this secularist mindset one could argue that the HHS mandate violates not only the First Amendment’s free exercise clause, but the establishment clause as well. When the federal government asserts the right to universally mandate actions, trample religious convictions, and then grant exemptions to those it chooses, the government is behaving perilously like a secular theocracy granting ecclesiastical indulgences to a chosen few.

Our forefathers knew how tenuous, unreliable, and intolerant such government toleration could be. Roger Williams, a 17th-century Baptist minister and the founder of Providence Plantations (later Rhode Island) asserted that, “Man hath no power to make laws to bind conscience,” and went on to say that forcing a person’s conscience was “the rape of the soul.”

Thomas Jefferson, chief drafter of the Declaration of Independence and our nation’s third president, argued in 1779 during the campaign for the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, that “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical.” Jefferson, in the last year of his presidency (1809), looking back on the accomplishments of the American Revolution, declared, “No provision of our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprise of the civil authority.”

The great 18th-century Baptist leader John Leland, friend and colleague of both James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, who help framed the First Amendment free exercise clause, declared “that religion is a matter between God and individuals, religious opinions of men not being the objects of civil government nor in any way under its control” (1791).

Indeed, at the time of the American Revolution, when our forefathers took on the world’s first superpower, the British Empire, the Continental Congress (1775), needing every able-bodied man to fight off a powerful invading force intent on crushing the rebellion, granted exemption from military service to the Moravian and Quaker colonists whose religious convictions included the renunciation of participating in war. Of course this tradition has been continued with the government granting conscientious objector status from a military draft for those with similar religious convictions throughout our history, even when the government was under dire threat.

In modern times Pope John Paul II correctly identified religious freedom as the “first freedom” and as “the premise and guarantee of all freedoms that ensure the common good.” In his 1999 papal letter, “Respect for Human Rights” Pope John Paul II explained: “Religion expresses the deepest aspirations of the human person, shapes people’s vision of the world and affects their relationships with others; basically, it offers the answer to question of the true meaning of life, both personal and communal. Religious freedom therefore constitutes the very heart of human rights.”

People of all faiths — and no faith — should rise up and demand that the Obama administration rescind its HHS mandate that insurance-subsidized and free contraceptives, abortifacients and sterilization procedures be required of all but churches. Such government coercion of conscience is intolerable.

The president’s supposed “compromise” of having insurance companies pay for these services is an accounting trick, a distinction without a difference. The cost to the insurance companies will be built into the premiums, paid by the religious organization or the individual.

This controversy is about freedom, not fertility. As Cardinal Dolan asks in his letter, “If the government can, for example, tell Catholics that they cannot be in the insurance business today without violating their religious convictions, where does it end?”

Indeed! Let’s all understand what is at stake here. Unless you are a priest or a minister working for a church or you work for a firm with less than 50 employees, here is the dilemma you will face. If the U.S. Supreme Court does not strike down Obamacare’s mandate that all people purchase health insurance upon penalty of a substantial fine, and if Obamacare, unimpeded, takes effect as scheduled Jan. 1, 2014, millions of Americans will be faced with a tortuous choice. If you have religious conscience objections to subsidizing contraception, or abortifacients, or sterilization in your health insurance program, you will face a stark choice. Under Obamacare, all health insurance programs will be required to offer free reproductive services (i.e. contraception, abortifacients, sterilization), which means that many Americans will face the choice of violating their deeply held religious convictions and purchasing health insurance which forces them to financially subsidize that which they find unconscionable (i.e. reproductive services) or pay a substantial fine for declining to purchase health insurance and not having health insurance for their families.

A government imposed fine for following your religious convictions? In America? Say it isn’t so! Our Founding Fathers would be aghast.
Richard Land is president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

    About the Author

  • Richard Land

    Richard Land, D. Phil, is the Executive Editor of the Christian Post, having previously served as president of the ERLC (1988-2013) and president of Southern Evangelical Seminary (2013-2021). He also serves as the chairman of the advisory board at the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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