Although it may be hard to believe with all of the attention-getting headlines, the fight against the Health and Human Services decision to mandate that all employers provide free contraception coverage for all of their female employees is not a "war on women." The real principle at stake isn’t whether contraception and the women who use it are good or evil, it is a legal question about what the right to exercise religious beliefs really means. Or, to paraphrase a presenter at a recent law conference, whether government can force religious institutions to give up their missions to accomplish a political goal.
Many churches, including the Catholic Church, believe their mission is not limited to worship services. Catholics leave the church on Sunday with the admonition to "go and serve the Lord." We do so in many ways, including educating children, serving food to the poor, and providing a host of other services to the vulnerable regardless of their religious persuasion.
To ensure we are able to accomplish this mission, the Constitution guarantees that government will not interfere with the free exercise of our religion. The United States Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment, and the federal laws that support it, to mean that government may not place a substantial burden on a religious institution unless it can prove a compelling governmental interest. Those pronouncing a war on women claim the government interest is ensuring women have access to contraception because it lowers health care costs by preventing the more expensive condition of pregnancy.
But most prescription pharmaceuticals have a similar benefit. Typically, drugs are prescribed to prevent or at least delay a more serious, and expensive, health care condition. Insulin, AIDS medications, cancer meds, high blood pressure pills, etc., all "lower" costs by at least delaying a potentially catastrophic condition. Yet none are provided without co-pay by employers under a government mandate (not to mention that all are designed to prevent diseases, while contraception is designed to prevent a natural, temporary condition).
The only apparent difference between contraception and other drugs, then, is the target patient pool. Contraception is already available without cost to low-income women. Medicaid includes it in its prescription coverage. And no one really argues that prescription contraception is not readily available to any woman who wants it. So why a government mandate? Perhaps it is because in a contentious election year, women voters matter. Seeking votes, however, is not a compelling enough governmental interest to overcome the rights of a religious employer to operate in accord with its long-standing beliefs. The Constitution, federal law and the courts have long recognized that religious entities tend to operate in accord with their beliefs. Nor should it come as any surprise to employees at Catholic organizations that contraception may not be included in their health care policies. The Catholic Church’s opposition to the HHS mandate is not about waging war on women, it is about protecting its right to uphold established internal policies that are consistent with its pro-life ethic.