John Leo

Last summer the Washington, D.C., City Council tried to force all district employers to provide coverage for contraceptives and some abortifacients, with no exemption for conscience. With a burst of Ted Turner-style Catholic baiting, a councilman angrily waved around a picture of the pope, railing about dogma and the folly of "surrendering decision of public health matters to the church."

Catholic Bishop William Lori called the bill "health-care totalitarianism, whereby the government makes all the health-care decisions and forces its will on religious organizations." The National Association of Evangelicals expressed sympathy for Catholic leaders, saying that "requiring birth-control coverage is a veritable assault on the integrity of their religious institutions." The D.C. council passed the bill unanimously, but when Congress threatened to intervene, Mayor Anthony Williams pocket-vetoed the bill.

In New York, the state Catholic Conference has a lot of clout on the basis of its massive spending on the poor and the sick of the state. The group says flatly it will not be implicated in delivering services it considers immoral. But it is open to the idea of having the employees of Catholic institutions get these services directly from the state. The health bills affect millions of women, but only 10,000 to 20,000 would be affected by the conscience clause for contraception. Catholic Health Services says it would cost the state only $4 million or $5 million a year to pick up the cost of contraception for these women.

So far, the strangest outcome of a struggle over a conscience clause has been in California. The state passed a law allowing only narrow use of the clause. To qualify for the exemption, religious organizations must hire only adherents of their faith and devote themselves solely to religious training.

This turns Catholic charities, colleges and hospitals into "secular" institutions, which must therefore provide coverage the church considers immoral. It is a non-solution that makes little sense. If Catholics wanted to bar non-Catholics from their institutitons in order to qualify for the exemption, they would have to violate state and federal anti-discrimination laws. More broadly, the California law reflects the elite notion that religion should be driven from the public square. If religious attempts to serve and change the culture can be separated out as somehow secular, faith isn't much more than an off-stage pastime.

The central issue here is an attempt to use state power to force churches to violate their own principles. Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago Divinity School calls this an example of "liberal monism," an enforced monoculture created by people who talk expansively about freedom and pluralism, but who, in fact, work to erase pluralism and bring private groups into line with state orthodoxy.

The "conscience clause" issue has obvious implications for a government alliance with faith-based social action groups. If we want a partnership, forcing churches to compromise their moral beliefs is not a great start.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

Be the first to read John Leo's column. Sign up today and receive delivered each morning to your inbox.