Yesterday, UrbanFaith columnist Andrew Wilkes expressed his opinion about President Obama’s decision last week not to require religious employers to pay for contraception as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Today, we add the voices of Christian thinkers Cheryl J. Sanders, Charles C. Camosy, and Lisa Sharon Harper to the discussion.
Sanders: ‘The Public Policy Priority Is Justice’
“The first rule that had to be retracted and reversed was an unfortunate miscalculation on the president’s part. I give him credit for tweaking the agreement. What I lament is something that I don’t just blame him for, but which occurs from time to time, particularly in the federal government, where there’s a misunderstanding, a misreading, of religion and people’s religious sensibilities. Some things can be legislated, but there are some beliefs and practices that people have that are grounded in faith rather than a particular notion of rights.
My ethical perspective is that the priority in public policy should be given to justice. The purpose of justice is to ensure the well being of people and to impose those restraints and requirements that give people equal access to justice and to fair treatment, because they’re not exactly the same. Sometimes those justice matters are subjective, but the outcome of justice should be the best quality of life that any individual person or group can have.
Some people make very questionable decisions about their sexuality, about child bearing, but they have a right to their own bodies and their own relationships, so it’s good for government to stay out of that. When it comes to federal funding of religious institutions, there are goods and services that go to people consistent with this notion of quality of life that are rightly funded by the government. However, the government has to be respectful of the particular moral teachings of a particular religious community that would not necessarily square with the morality of the general public.
I don’t say that’s an easy calculation to make. The government is much more comfortable funding big corporate entities like Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services, even the Salvation Army, because they’re organized in a way that matches with the dominant culture’s way of doing business, whereas with black churches and smaller organizations, it’s always a problem. For African Americans, the role that religion and churches play in the society is construed differently. There’s less of a distinction between faith and public policy. That’s why the civil rights movement and many of the strongest voices advocating for legislation or for particular government initiatives are coming from religious leaders in the African American community. You don’t find that same situation in the dominant culture unless it’s something like this where there’s a rule imposed that contradicts church teaching.”
—, professor of Christian Ethics, Howard University
Camosy: ‘Perhaps Both Sides Were Disingenuous’
“The reason this became a serious public issue from which the administration had to backtrack was because ‘liberal’ Catholics were objecting and they were afraid they might lose significant Catholic support in important swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Wisconsin. The objection of most ‘liberal’ Catholics was related to religious freedom of institutions. They don’t really see contraception (especially letting women make a decision about how to use contraception–either for health reasons or something else or both) as a morally significant issue.
‘Conservative’ Catholics, however, always objected to the mandate in a broad sense because they see especially abortifacient contraception as a very important moral issue–something which all people, regardless of religion or status as a religious employer, should be able to object to providing on the basis of conscience. Unfortunately for this point of view, in order to get “heard” by the administration and the left-leaning Catholics in the media, the line of argument had to be explicitly about the freedom of religious institutions with respect to the federal government. That makes the objections now being raised by the bishops less persuasive because it looks like the goal posts have shifted.
Something that doesn’t get talked about enough in all this is that Catholic teaching, and the U.S. bishops, consider health care to be a fundamental right. A woman can get the pill if she is taking it for what we would understand health reasons—she has an issue with her cycle, ovarian cysts/cancer, she has a condition which makes pregnancy threaten her life, etc. Why can’t a physician simply code a script for a patient in a way that treats a specific health condition? This is totally allowed under Catholic teaching. Unless, of course, the real issue is not about women’s health, but about having sex without having babies. Perhaps both ‘sides’ were disingenuous in speaking about ‘religious freedom’ and ‘women’s health’ when they actually meant something else.”
—Charles C. Camosy, Ph.D., assistant professor of Christian Ethics, Fordham University
Harper: ‘Commitment to Women Doesn’t Trump Religious Liberty’
“At the core of this issue is a debate between worldviews. These worldviews are held most dearly by the people who have the most interest in them. In one worldview, the debate is about the freedom of conscience for religious organizations, in particular hospitals and universities because other religious bodies were exempt from Obama’s ruling. It’s a legitimate concern. There were legitimate counter arguments on the other side, where you had the worldview of women and also people who are deeply invested in issues of poverty.
What I like about what I’ve seen, not only in Obama, but also in the country, is that around this issue, it’s not been a question of ideology, but a question of practicality. What will work to actually continue to protect the religious liberty of religious institutions and at the same time protect the liberty of individual women in America to access contraception? That is not only a right in America because it has to do with an individual’s body and ability to hold liberty over their own body, but also it has to do with the right to life, because we know that contraception is one of the biggest ways to help lessen the number of abortions in America. Sojourners put out a statement saying we like what we’ve seen and we agree with the overwhelming response of the religious community. Our nation is committed to standing behind the needs of women, in particular poor women. That commitment does not have to trump the American commitment to preserving religious liberty. It’s a brilliant compromise.”
—Lisa Sharon Harper, director of mobilizing, Sojourners
What do you think?
Was this a brilliant compromise, a matter of justice, or a disingenuous debate?
*Please note: Participant comments have been edited for length and clarity.