Fr. Thomas Reese: It’s Time for a Grand Compromise on Religious Freedom and Contraceptives

An organizer for contraceptive birth control pills. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Those who felt that the Obama administration was heavy-handed in its promotion of reproductive rights are pleased with the Trump administration’s support of religious freedom in these areas. Not only has Trump rolled back the imposition of the contraceptive mandate on objecting religious groups, he has also packed the U.S. Supreme Court with two conservative justices who will look favorably on the proponents of religious liberty.

No longer do the Catholic bishops and others have to worry that employers will be forced to cover contraceptives in their employee health insurance plans if it goes against their religious beliefs.

But before the winners do a victory dance, it would be good for them to remember that administrations come and go. The recent midterm election puts the gains made during this presidency in doubt. Now is the time for the proponents of religious liberty to offer to negotiate a grand compromise with those who promote women’s rights.

Compromise has become a dirty word in American politics as we have become more polarized. We should all listen to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), who in 1988 wrote, “It is not refusal to compromise but compromise that in political things is the true morality.” After all, politics is the art of the possible, not the perfect.

But why should religious freedom advocates compromise when they are winning? The truth is that their victory is on shaking ground.

Take the Catholic bishops’ opposition to the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act. Their position has almost zero support nationally. Only 4 percent of American adults think contraception is morally wrong. Even among Catholics who attend Mass weekly, only 13 percent believe contraception is sinful, according to the Pew Research Center. Public policy needs a stronger foundation than this to survive.

“Broad support for contraception coverage.”
Graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center

Some may object that the issue at hand is about religious freedom, not contraception. Won’t Americans support employers who have religious objections to contraceptives? The answer is no. Two-thirds of Americans, according to Pew, say that employers who have a religious objection to birth control should be required to provide it in health insurance plans for their employees as other employers are required to do.

Bottom line: The bishops do not have the voters behind them in their opposition to the contraceptive mandate.

There is a second reason that the opponents of the contraceptive mandate should negotiate a compromise. They may have won on the federal level, but they are losing at the state level.

Currently, about 30 states have a contraceptive mandate (with some exemptions), including the majority of the most populous states. No matter what Trump does, these states can still force employers, including religious institutions, to provide contraceptives in their employee health plans. Some of these states, such as California, even require coverage of abortion by Catholic colleges and universities.

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Source: Religion News Service