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Contraceptive Mandate Is Not About Religious Liberty, It’s About Female Liberty

On Wednesday evening’s Hardball, host Chris Matthews convened an infuriatingly one-sided panel to discuss the Obama administration’s recent decision not to permit an exemption for some religious employers to the contraception mandate. The Washington Post‘s Melinda Henneberger and Melissa Rogers of the Brookings Institution took turns trashing the decision, and the point of view of doctors, nurses, teachers, etc., who would be marginalized by such an exemption was not represented.

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The Obama administration announced, last year, that insurance plans would be required to provide a raft of preventive services, including contraception and sterilization. Currently, religious organizations enjoy a “conscience exemption,” and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius recently announceed that non-church religious employers will be required to cover such services, without deductibles or coinsurance, beginning in August of 2013.

Matthews and his panel made some fairly good points about the politics of the decision, of which Henneberger said “I’m trying to figure out how it could have been handled more poorly, but I can’t.”

To all appearances, Catholic leaders emerged from talks with the Obama administration confident that their concerns would be given priority in this decision, and are feeling burned now. Matthews pointed out that many Catholics are swing voters, and angering them in an election year could be unwise. Rogers pointed out that there were ways to extend coverage to the affected employees without making the churches pay for it, although from a philosophical standpoint, such a loophole would seem cosmetic and hollow, at best. Still, these are all legitimate points, worthy of discussion.

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This is where I part ways with Matthews and Co. Opponents of the decision are calling it an infringement on “religious liberty,” a premise that Rogers accepts, saying “I think they had a good goal in mind, which is in my view expanded contraceptive coverage, is a good thing. The problem is they’ve struck the wrong balance here on religious liberty. We shouldn’t in my view require objecting religious employers to pay for and offer their employees a plan that they preach against.”

The whole problem here is the premise that the goal is “expanded contraceptive coverage,” an argument that Jay Carney unhelpfully made at yesterday’s White House briefing. The goal here is protecting female employees in non-religious jobs from having someone else’s religion forced on them, to provide these women with equal protection under the law. There is nothing in the First Amendment that guarantees churches the right to run hospitals and schools that serve the general public. If your conscience didn’t allow you to put out a fire, you wouldn’t have a right to be a fireman, but you could still go to your pro-fire church to your heart’s content.

However, women who work at these institutions have a right to be treated equally. Not to do so amounts to an infringement on their religious liberty, and their right to equal protection under the law. If the Catholic church refused to provide birth control to black non-religious employees, would we even be having this discussion?

That is not to say that Matthews, et al, aren’t entitled to their opinion, and simply saying “If you don’t like it, don’t run a hospital” isn’t remotely realistic, but the women being affected by this decision should have been represented in the discussion. It is a shame they weren’t.

Here’s the segment, from MSNBC:


Author’s note: The opening paragraph of this story has been amended, as a courtesy to Melissa Rogers. The last sentence in the opening paragraph originally read “no one spoke a syllable for the doctors, nurses, teachers, etc., who would be marginalized by such an exemption,” and now reads “the point of view of doctors, nurses, teachers, etc., who would be marginalized by such an exemption was not represented.”

For more on her position on this matter, click here.

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