Religious Liberty, Contraception and Gay Rights

Amazing—and embarrassing—as it may seem, the American Taliban is once again waging battle against sex. This time, their target is contraception.

Their fig leaf is a definition of “religious liberty” that neither the nation’s Founders nor the courts would recognize—the same definition that they employ in their ongoing war against civil rights for gays and lesbians. Short form: giving rights to women and gays would violate their religious liberties.

A brief recap: When the Obama administration issued regulations for employer-provided health insurance, the regulations required that such coverage include birth control. Churches were exempt from the requirement (an exemption that is required by the First Amendment), but religiously-affiliated institutions like hospitals and universities were not. More than half of the states already had such a requirement, and those employers had been complying for years without any discernable fuss or claim that these rules somehow represented a “war on religion.”

Enter the forces for “religious liberty” aka the Catholic Bishops and the GOP. Their argument was that making religious employers pay for insurance that included birth control was a violation of their freedom of conscience. Under years of Supreme Court precedent, it wasn’t, but the Administration moved to accommodate their sensibilities by requiring the insurance companies to offer the coverage at no cost directly to women, removing the employer from the equation.

As I write this, the Bishops and the (ascendant) Santorum wing of the Republican Party are not mollified, despite the fact that Catholic nuns and a significant majority of American Catholics are fine with it. According to their arguments, simply making birth control available to employees of religiously affiliated employers is itself a violation of their religious liberties.

I know I harp on the public’s lack of civic and constitutional literacy, but this is another perfect example.

When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, they wanted the “liberty” to impose the correct religion on their neighbors. The idea that Church and State could be separated was unknown to the Puritans who first settled in the new country; the freedom they wanted was the freedom to “establish” the True Religion, and form a government that would require their neighbors to live in accordance with that religion.

A hundred and fifty years later, however, the men who crafted the Constitution for the new nation were products of a dramatically different worldview. The philosophical movement we call the Enlightenment had given birth to science, privileged reason over superstition, and reconsidered the proper role of government. Liberty—religious or otherwise—had come to mean the right of individuals to live their lives in accordance with their own consciences, free of the coercion of the state and free of what the founders called “the passions of the majority.”

Our Constitution may have been a product of the Enlightenment, but we still have a significant number of Puritans in America, and what we sometimes call the “culture wars” are yet another conflict between those two very different visions of liberty.

The Rick Santorums of the world aren’t just against equal rights for gays and lesbians, they aren’t just anti-abortion and anti-birth control (Santorum himself has gone on record saying that birth control should not be available because it allows people to engage in “wrong” sexual behavior). They are deeply Puritan: anti-science, anti-reason, anti-diversity. That they are absolutely convinced of their own possession of the Truth is less disconcerting than their even stronger conviction that “liberty” means they should have the right to make everyone else live by their Truth.

These are the same irony-challenged theocrats who are running around proposing legislation to prevent imposition of “Sharia law.”

I’d guess they don’t have mirrors. Or a capacity for self-reflection.


  1. I guess I keep coming back to the whole “Paying taxes to support wars, enhanced interrogations, and the like violates my moral beliefs” thing. So far as I know the only place this gets such sincere folks is either an impounded bank account or on occasion a jail cell.

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