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The Despotism of 'Choice'

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

The Little Sisters of the Poor, a 175-year-old Catholic order of nuns that cares for the elderly poor, believes itself to enjoy a constitutional right to exemption from a federal mandate hazardous to the order's self-understanding.

The mandate, under Obamacare, is either to cover contraceptives and abortifacients for employees or to hand off coverage to the Little Sister's insurance carrier. The nuns oppose all artificial means of birth control.

Well, so what? The Department of Health and Human Services thinks it's being nice by allowing a religious institution to sign a document saying basically, "Ooooooohhh, birth control, bad! -- so, gee, thanks, insurance carrier, for hiding the ball in our behalf." The Little Sisters insist, in a lawsuit filed by their Denver chapter, that farming out the job to another party implicates them in the action they oppose.

The government's very odd way of prioritizing values -- free contraceptive devices measured as a higher good than any moral understanding possibly planted by God -- is characteristic of our times. Secular political ideals regularly trump religious scruples. "Made in Washington, D.C.," is a stronger product endorsement these days than "Thus saith the Lord."

The Little Sisters of the Poor have company in their distress over the government's theological arm-twisting. At the start of the year, 91 lawsuits were pending against the contraceptive mandate, which, though it exempts churches, applies to church-related institutions such as hospitals and universities. It applies as well to private businesses whose owners share scruples akin to those of the non-profits that oppose contraception.

The Green family, which owns the craft store chain Hobby Lobby, "finds no objection to the use of 16 of 20 preventative contraceptives required in the mandate." Quite a different matter from the Greens' standpoint are "four possible life-threatening drugs and devices," including Plan B and Ella. In a lawsuit the U.S., Supreme Court will hear in March, Hobby Lobby contends that the mandate undermines its right to religious freedom. Another complainant is the evangelical institution Wheaton College, whose president, Philip Ryken, supports Catholics in their struggle to "have the freedom to carry out their mission without government coercion."

The Denver Little Sisters stand in no short-run peril, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor having enjoined the government temporarily from making them sign up or pay an annual fine -- $2.5 million -- representing a third of their budget. The Supreme Court will eventually hand down its consensus view as to their rights under the First Amendment to freedom of worship and the free exercise of religion.

The matter would once upon a time have seemed cut and dry. (SET ITAL) Of course (END ITAL), the religious exemption trumped one-size-fits-all political calculations! A pre-liberated age would have seen the whole question as intrusive on constitutionally protected reasoning, as well as inappropriate to sound public policy.

That was before the federal government took over, as numerous Americans saw it, primary responsibility for maximizing American health and prosperity. The religious freedom provisions of the First Amendment became less a protection for the most important convictions of life than a barrier to achievement of secular goals -- "reproductive choice" very much near the top of that list.

In the Little Sisters case, and the others working their way up to the Supreme Court, genuinely free choice obtains only for those interested in electing for birth control. That's what they want? Well, that takes care of it. Our elected officials have established a regime under which most employers must make birth control free. What more needs saying?

Meanwhile, the country moves toward a kind of orthodoxy on "marriage equality," with federal judges overruling, in Utah and Oklahoma, the traditional heterosexual understanding of marriage in order to accommodate those who, shall we say, want something different. A New Mexico photographer was recently sanctioned when she declined to photograph a gay wedding. Similar things are happening to bakers who reserve their wedding cake services for male-female couples.

Repeat after us, boys and girls: "The right to choose means the right to choose rightly." In accordance with who's got the political power. No doubt, these days, of whom that is!

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