The problem, as you probably know, is that the Roman Catholic church opposes the use of contraceptives and Catholic institutions employ a lot of people. As the rule was announced originally, actual churches would have been exempt from the mandate, but Catholic universities, hospitals and charities would not have been exempt. Under the original rule, they would have had to pay for contraceptive services, despite their religious objections.
American Catholic bishops were furious about this. They said that the rule went too far. They said that it violated the religious freedoms of people who are opposed to birth control. Why should they have to pay for something that they oppose?
Eventually, the Obama administration sought to minimize the damage caused by the uproar. They changed the rule so that religious organizations that object to birth control would not have to pay for contraceptives. Instead, the cost burden in such cases has been transferred to insurance companies. Employees who want birth control can get it and religious institutions that are opposed to birth control don't have to pay for it. That should solve the problem, right?
Apparently not. Some people, and not all of them Roman Catholics, want to keep the controversy going—a few for religious reasons, but most of them to score political points. (If you hadn't noticed, it's an election year.) The new claim is that no employer who objects to contraception for religious reasons should be required to offer birth control to their employees, even if they don't have to pay for it, even if their employees do not share their religious beliefs. Now who's going too far? Now who's infringing on religious freedoms?
And what on earth does any of this have to do with living a joyful Jewish life? (Which is, you know, the point of this blog).
The whole rhetoric of "religious freedom" in this country has changed dramatically in the last fifty years. It is deeply troubling to me as a religious person who values my freedom of religion. It is deeply troubling to my sense of what society owes me as a religious person, and what my obligations are to society.
We live in an era when religious freedom is equated with the idea that nobody should ever be asked to step outside the comfort zone of his or her own religious beliefs. No one should be asked to respect the beliefs of another person when those beliefs conflict with his or her own. That is not what religious freedom used to mean.
Jews are very well acquainted with what it used to mean to be deprived of religious freedom. It meant that you were not allowed to practice, or even believe, in your religion. It meant that you were not allowed to own land or practice certain professions without renouncing your religion. It meant that the state could coerce you to abandon your own religious beliefs and practices and adopt those of the majority religion.
That is not what is happening in the contraception controversy. No one is telling anyone that they must pay a penalty for observing the strictures of their faith. The objection to the contraception rule seems to be that it deprives employers of the right to coerce their religious beliefs upon their employees. That's not right. If we are going to be one society, we must care about the needs of people who think differently than we do.
Jewish tradition states clearly that communities have an obligation to care for the sick and to minister to each person's health. Whether you like it or not (put me in the "not" category), our society has decided to fulfill that obligation through a system of employer-based insurance plans. That means that society, primarily through employers, takes care of people's health, regardless of whether we share the same opinions, beliefs or religion. We don't put an asterisk on some healthcare services and say, in effect, "We will deny you this service because, as your employer, we can force our beliefs on you."
Freedom of religion does not convey the right to opt out of any social contract that involves something we don't endorse for ourselves. Can a Muslim employer refuse to provide lunch breaks for employees during the month of Ramadan? Can a Jewish health commissioner refuse to inspect non-kosher restaurants? Of course not. We live in a pluralistic society. It's time we stop pretending that we can ignore the needs of people with whom we disagree. We all need each other and our obligations to each other do not end at the boundaries of our own cannon law.
This is not just about Catholics or about Christians. There is no way to be a joyful member of your religion—any religion—if you use your beliefs as a weapon to deny other people the free exercise of their rights and beliefs. There is nothing joyful about coercion. (And, yes, I am also talking about those orthodox and ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel who think it is their God-given right to impose their version of Judaism on the non-orthodox). To be a joyful Jew means to enter into a partnership with all humanity. It means to recognize that our differences with others do not have to make them our enemies.
We can rejoice in taking care of our neighbors without expecting them to knuckle under our way of thinking. We should remember that, if we do, we not only subvert their ability to live a joyful life, we subvert our own.
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