This Presidents’ Day, President Obama offered Americans a reminder of the threat modern executive power poses to individual liberty.
A vigorous national debate erupted in recent weeks in response to the President’s approval of a Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate, which would require all health insurance plans to cover contraceptives, abortion-inducing drugs, and sterilization at no cost to the patient.
Feminist groups praised the President for endowing women with unimpeded access to contraceptives, regardless of their income. However, because the mandate would require all employers, including religious institutions such as Catholic hospitals, private schools, and faith based community organizations, to offer full coverage despite their religious beliefs concerning contraception, the Roman Catholic Church immediately flagged the mandate as a violation of their freedom of conscience. Much of the public and Members of Congress, including many Senate Democrats, criticized the mandate as an assault on religious freedom.
Thus, from its inception, the debate has been defined in terms that have directly pitted feminists against the Roman Catholic Church. In an effort to appease both groups, Obama offered a virtually meaningless accommodation to religious institutions, which would shift the technical requirement to provide free contraception to insurance companies so that religious institutions are not explicitly paying for it.
In actuality, no accommodations, however substantial, will alleviate the real threat posed by the mandate.
What is most significant about the mandate is not so much that the President has violated the religious liberty of a particular group, in this case, most notably Catholics, but that he has exposed the tenuous foundation on which the liberty of all Americans, male and female, now stands.
James Madison, the Father of the Bill of Rights and author of the First Amendment, rightly noted the interconnection of liberty and rights generally. In an essay entitled “On Property,” Madison contends that the right to property is a comprehensive right which “embraces everything to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which leaves to everyone else the like advantage.”