Contraceptive Pills

Contraceptive Pills Wikimedia Commons

The Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of nuns that staffs nursing homes, is suing the government in order not to be required to fill out a form that would exempt them from having to provide contraception coverage for their insured employees. To do so would provide the employees with a “permission slip” to obtain the coverage directly from their insurance company. At least that’s how their lawyer at the Becket Fund characterized it in the Washington Post the other day.

Over at the National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters begs to differ, and by my lights has much the better of the argument. His analogy, not perfect but with much less of a limp, is that the Little Sisters are like conscientious objectors, whose exercise of the right not to go to war does not mean giving the government a permission slip to draft others in their place.

Amidst the  back and forth, it’s worth taking a moment to consider what the Little Sisters would like to be the case. So far as I can see, what they want is to deny their employees contraception coverage. They are claiming a religious right to be able to do so. A good legal argument can be made that this would violate the religious rights of the employees. The larger question has to do with the extent to which those in charge should be allowed to impose their religious convictions on those who work for them.

Categories: Institutions

Mark Silk

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

5 Comments

  1. james lodwick

    As usual, Sir, on the occasions when you and Michael Sean Winters disagree about something regarding religious freedom, you are right, he is is wrong.

  2. Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Sometimes there is more at stake than appears at first.
    The image of coercing the nuns to just sign a little piece of paper then they can safely go on their merry way immediately brought to my mind the image of a Christian in ancient Rome just dropping a tiny grain of incense into a censer and all is forgiven. Government Power trampling on conscience at its worst.
    Considering how cheap the pills in dispute are (some having abortion causing properties) there is no need for the nuns or other religious people to have to be involved in any way to government diktats on this issue. That something couldn’t have been worked out in Congress goes back to Speaker Pelosi’s arrogant assertion that no one needs to know what is in the bill until it goes into effect.
    Probably what the nuns should do is form a union and make campaign contributions to Democrats- then they might get favored status from corrupt government power–as is the case today in case after case of Obamacare bureaucracy favoritism toward unions and donors..

  3. “the Little Sisters are like conscientious objectors, whose exercise of the right not to go to war does not mean giving the government a permission slip to draft others in their place.”

    Except this argument ignores the historical reality that conscientious objectors did in fact have people drafted to go in their place (they must have, that’s how drafts work). Additionally, conscientious objectors were commonly pressed into civil service that wasn’t violent — things like fighting forest fires or manning factories which were building war materiel.

    Finally, there’s another layer to why that analogy is incorrect; conscientious objection does not work in a strictly monetary transfer situation. I cannot use my pacifism as a reason to not pay taxes which go to fund the military, no matter how much I might like to. I can’t even make sure that my taxes do go to things I want: perhaps paying the full amount of taxes but indicating that they can only go to do things like house the homeless and feed the poor and build the roads and fund the schools. Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society. I don’t see why the Little Sisters of the Poor, in this instance, should receive more discretionary tax-paying rights corporately than I do personally due to their having been founded as a religious organization.

  4. samuel Johnston

    “A good legal argument can be made that this would violate the religious rights of the employees”
    Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as religious rights. There are only the group of civill rights enumerated in the First Amendment which are protected from certain congressional actions. Later rulings by various Courts have muddied the waters a bit, but still, there are no religious rights as such. The government simply lacks the authority to grant them.

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