The construction and ratification of the U.S. Constitution was a contentious process, with many of its framers concerned that its lack of a clear assertion of what were then considered natural rights (and to a large extent, still are) would allow the country to return to something like a monarchy. This oversight was corrected in 1791 by the ratification of the Bill of Rights: the first ten amendments to the Constitution. The First Amendment is powerful and simple:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
It is hard to see how the rights enumerated here could be misunderstood. Nevertheless, people with religious agendas have attempted to corrupt the meaning of the first two clauses for most of the history of our country. Today there exists a politically powerful coalition of organizations that seek to interpret this amendment in ways that were never intended by its authors, and serve only to create discord and divisiveness in the population.
A good example is seen in the current debate about health insurance coverage of birth control. In the U.S., most people who have health insurance receive it through their employer. Because this amounts to a largely untaxed subsidy, many people are economically forced (or at least, placed under strong pressure) to accept the insurance options their employer makes available. Because the health care reform being considered in the U.S. (and now partly implemented) depends upon private insurance, that reform comes with certain rules regarding the services that insurance companies must provide, and extends those rules to the companies purchasing or otherwise providing insurance on behalf of their employees.
What are these rules? Nothing too onerous: only that most common and accepted standard medical procedures and pharmaceuticals be covered. In the U.S., that includes contraception. I doubt many Americans take issue with requiring insurance companies to cover basic medical services. Or they wouldn’t have, until politico-religious rabble rousers got into it. Because the rules apply to all businesses, regardless of the opinions of their owners or operators, a few Catholic leaders made the claim that the religious freedom of Catholic owned businesses was being infringed upon by requiring that any insurance they provide their employees include coverage for contraception. Keep in mind, we’re only talking about businesses here, not churches. The churches themselves are exempt from the new policy. Only church-owned businesses, such as hospitals or daycare centers are affected. These businesses operate according to the same rules that all businesses operate under, and take advantage of the many laws that benefit businesses, as well. To exempt a Catholic owned business from providing standard health care makes as much sense as exempting a Jehovah’s Witnesses owned business from providing insurance that covers blood transfusions, or a Christian Scientist owned business from providing for non-prayer-based treatment at all.
The Supreme Court effectively settled the matter in 1878, in its ruling on Reynolds v. United States:
Congress was deprived of all legislative power over mere opinion, but was left free to reach actions which were in violation of social duties or subversive of good order.
In other words, the First Amendment affords every person the right to their personal religious views, but does not afford them the absolute right to any actions or practices required by those views. You are permitted to object to contraception on religious grounds; you are permitted to not use contraception yourself; you are not permitted to withhold support for contraceptive services from your taxes, or to fail to provide such services in your company’s health plan.
The reality is, we are all party to a social contract that requires our material contribution to things we might have philosophical objections to. That is the price we pay for living in a civilized society. The Catholic Church recognizes this, and allows for indirect support of many things that go against its teachings. A few people have tried to frame this as a First Amendment issue, but in so doing they reveal a gross ignorance about the rights and obligations carried with that amendment. The health care reform under question does not violate any aspect of the Constitution. It makes no law respecting an establishment of religion, and it makes no law prohibiting the free exercise thereof. However, what does violate the First Amendment is any exemption of a business, on religious grounds, from laws that other businesses must follow.