Steve Chapman

Anyone left without health insurance under the administration's rule can go to new state-run health insurance exchanges to buy individual policies. But here again, the administration rejects freedom of conscience. The only policies available will include coverage for contraceptives -- including those the church regards as "abortion drugs" -- and sterilization.

This overbearing approach is not essential to health care reform. Experience indicates that freedom can coexist with general access to contraception.

In the past, employers have generally been able to make their own decisions, and most cover it. According to the Guttmacher Institute, nine out of 10 company policies pay for prescription birth control. The federal employee plan allows insurers with religious scruples to sell policies that don't include such coverage -- which doesn't prevent anyone from getting policies that do.

This is an issue on which the Catholic Church is drastically at odds with prevailing opinion and practice. Its position has a way of bringing out latent anti-Catholic sentiment. Writing in The Huffington Post, June Carbone and Naomi Cahn sneer at "the male hierarchy's opposition to birth control." The issue, they insist, "is too important to be left in the hands of a small number of men in robes."

But religious freedom is too important to be left in the hands of people who see it as an obstacle to be pushed aside whenever it's inconvenient. Anytime it is feasible to let organizations and individuals follow the dictates of faith, it's essential that they be permitted to do so.

That's established policy in many areas. When the military relied on the draft, Quakers were allowed to opt out because of their pacifism. When a Seventh-Day Adventist was fired for refusing to work on her Sabbath, the Supreme Court said she was eligible for unemployment benefits. Prison officials have to accommodate the religious practices of inmates.

Why? Out of respect for religious freedom and diversity. Most Americans regard that tradition as a mark of civic health. In this case, the administration treats it as an illness to be cured.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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