WASHINGTON — Imagine if you went to work tomorrow and your boss announced that your health-care plan would no longer cover surgery. He had become a Jehovah’s Witness and could no longer in good conscience support any procedure that might involve a blood transfusion. Even though you’re not a member of that faith, you’d have to go along with that.
Ridiculous, right? Not really. There are people in Washington working right now to pass legislation that would allow your boss to tailor your workplace’s health-care plan to his religious beliefs. And worse yet, they’re doing it in the name of “religious freedom.”
How did this come about? The new health-care law seeks to ensure a basic level of care for everyone by mandating that certain services and procedures be covered. Among them is contraceptive care. Houses of worship are totally exempt from this requirement, but religiously affiliated institutions are dealt with differently.
These institutions — mainly hospitals, colleges and social service agencies — receive massive amounts of tax funding, serve the public and often hire people from many different religions.
President Barack Obama has proposed a rule that would require insurance companies to pick up the cost of birth control and offer it to the employees, sparing church-related institutions from doing it directly.
This is not good enough for some on the right. Despite the fact that birth control is widely used in America — 98 percent of people will rely on it at some point in their lives — and despite the fact that the pill has other uses such as shrinking ovarian cysts and reducing menstrual cramps, some religious leaders have stubbornly resisted allowing it to even be made available to their employees.
According to the right, big, religiously affiliated universities and hospitals have some sort of “corporate conscience” that must be protected — even if it tramples an individual’s rights.
Furthermore, conservatives are now arguing that this so-called “right” to tailor health care to religious demands must be extended to private employers. Thus, if your boss becomes a fundamentalist Christian and decides that childhood vaccines demonstrate a lack of faith in God, he can deny vaccination coverage to all of his workers.
This is not “religious freedom.” It is control of others. The government has no obligation to assist an employer in imposing his religious beliefs on others.
A factory owner has the right to believe what he wants about God and run his own life according to those beliefs. He has no right to interject his theology into the personal relationship between you and your doctor.
From a legal standpoint, courts in both New York and California have already upheld rules like the one the Obama originally proposed. Religious freedom is important, but courts have never allowed it to become an excuse to run roughshod over the rights of others or engage in actions that cause harm to society.
Obama’s compromise is reasonable and hardly amounts to a “war on religion.” As a minister, I know that religious groups get plenty of special breaks. Tax exemption is just one.
According to The New York Times, between 1989 and 2006, religious organizations received more than 200 exemptions from laws governing things like immigration, pensions and land use, courtesy of Congress
Religious groups also get a lot of taxpayer support. Catholic Charities received $753 million in taxpayer funds last year. Since we’re paying the tab, we can ask the group to respect others’ rights.
I celebrate religious freedom in America and give thanks for it every day. What I’m not for is using that precious concept to wage war on women’s health and your rights as an employee.
Chief among those rights is your ability to make your own decisions about birth control — without interference from a band of bishops, a church pastor or your supervisor down at the factory.
• Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.