John Leo
Here in New York, Cardinal Edward Egan had a little chat with Gov. George Pataki about whether Catholic institutions should be forced to provide contraceptive services and the "morning after" pill for their female employees. State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Planned Parenthood think they should. The cardinal disagrees. He thinks it's not a legitimate use of state power to force churches and religious institutions to violate their own principles.

This is a wildly controversial idea in Albany, where Silver and the Assembly Democrats have torn the usual "conscience clause" out of two health bills it passed for women. The Republican-dominated state Senate passed the bills with clauses allowing religious groups to opt out of some provisions on moral grounds. The bills require employers to offer a broad array of reproductive services in their health plans, including mammograms, pap smears, osteoporosis screening, contraception and various fertility procedures, some of which the Catholic Church considers immoral.

This whole progressive package is in jeopardy because it got tangled in Planned Parenthood's national campaign to bring the churches (and orthodox synagogues) to heel. PP and its allies in the abortion wars are out to eliminate conscience clauses everywhere. They even have a brand-new word to make acting on conscience sound backward and shady: "refusal clauses." With a little prodding, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission bought the dubious argument that "conscience clauses" are violations of anti-discrimination law.

So far the public and the media have paid little attention to the debate, because contraceptive funding seems like a ho-hum issue. Most people, including most Catholics, do not consider contraception immoral. But some religious leaders think they are on a slippery slope. A slide could lead to mandatory funding of the abortion pill, euthanasia and assisted suicide.

Many churches feel they have to make a stand here, before they are dragooned into funding new abortion medicines, cloning and suicide pills. Joe Loconte of the Heritage Foundation wrote: "It is no whimsy to worry when people are forced to bankroll whatever reproductive practices are in vogue -- today chemical abortion, tomorrow cloning."

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 MindingTheCampus.com and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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