UW Religion Today Column for Feb. 12

February 8, 2012

"Religion Today" is contributed by the University of Wyoming's Religious Studies Program to examine and promote discussion of religious issues.

By Paul V.M. Flesher

Do you think that religious institutions should be free from government interference in their theological and moral beliefs? Do you think companies should be free to focus on their business and not be burdened with irrelevant regulations? Do you think all Americans should have regular access to reliable health care?

If you answered "yes" to at least two of these questions, then you should support national health care for the United States of America.

Our closest international allies, Great Britain and Canada, have shown the success of a national health service open to all citizens. Their health systems are cheaper on a per-person basis than the American approach and their citizens live longer and healthier lives. Why wouldn't we want that?

Well, our country's recent debates over health care have shown that the question is not so simple. Despite the years of wrangling and the bitterness engendered while passing the current bill, we may have improved American health care delivery (many would debate that statement), but we have achieved few permanent solutions.

Surprisingly, apart from general opposition to "Obama-care," health care has not been a major focus of the Republican primary campaign. One issue seems about to change that: Birth control.

The implementation of the new health care laws requires businesses to provide insurance that covers a basic package of care. That care includes birth control. For religious institutions that oppose birth control, such as the Catholic Church, this brings on a dilemma. While churches themselves are exempt from this rule, church-sponsored institutions such as hospitals, universities and schools are not.

The moral problem here is that these companies are now required to pay for medical services their doctrines oppose. Cries of opposition have gone out from officials ranging from college presidents to archbishops: Do not require us to provide services we believe are a sin.

Since the First Amendment forbids government from "prohibiting the free exercise" of religion, this seems like a clear-cut violation. As Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah has argued, the exemption for churches but not for church-sponsored institutions "falls far short of securing the religious liberty guaranteed by the First Amendment."

But what about the rights of a hospital's employees? Should they not have access to equal health care as the rest of America's citizenry?

Many of a Catholic hospital's or a Catholic university's employees do not belong to the Catholic Church. They too have religious rights and the free exercise of them should not be infringed by their employer just because the employer is a religious organization.

But the question about whether the employees belong to the Catholic Church is irrelevant. A recent survey indicates that 54 percent of individual Catholics believe that Catholic institutions should be required to include birth control in their health insurance. In fact, during their child-bearing years, 98 percent of Catholic women use birth control. Their freedom to pursue their own views of religious practice would be compromised by the exemption requested by the bishops and archbishops.

So it seems that the new health care system pits the religious rights of the institution against the religious rights of the American citizens who are their employees.

This conflict could have been avoided if a national health service provided by the government had been enacted. If businesses no longer were responsible for providing health care for their employees and instead health care came from the federal government to its citizens, then there would be no moral conflict.

The religious institutions would not be responsible for providing health care, and so they would not be put into the moral dilemma of going against their beliefs. There would be no violation of their First Amendment rights. And individuals, whatever religious institution or company they worked for, would be able to exercise their religious rights and their access to quality health care would not be compromised.

This would also have been good for American businesses. The worst regulations that can be imposed on a company are those that have nothing to do with the goal of the business. The requirement that American businesses arrange and pay for the health care of their employees is a burden that foists large costs on companies and hinders their competitiveness in the marketplace. If their employees received health care from the government rather than from businesses, then American businesses would prosper.

Unfortunately, this is a vision of what-might-have-been. It would have been better for America's principle of the "separation of Church and State," if the country had moved toward national health care.

Flesher is director of UW's Religious Studies Program. Past columns and more information about the program can be found on the Web at www.uwyo.edu/RelStds. To comment on this column, visit http://religion-today.blogspot.com.

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