Commentary: Dust-up over contraceptive rule ignores rights of employees

The one problem with being a columnist with a boatload of opinions is that, sooner or later, someone will ask my opinion on a topic and I won't have one.

That's what's happened at first with this fake furor about the federal government under President Barack Obama trying to impose its beliefs on the Catholic Church.

"And this is what happens when the government tries to take over health care and tries to interfere with your religious beliefs," said our U.S. senator Mitch McConnell.

What happened was that on Jan. 20, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced that religious-based institutions must provide employees with health insurance plans that cover contraception. Churches, synagogues, mosques and the like were exempt, but other religious institutions such as hospitals and colleges were included.

So, when Catholic Church leaders said that requirement would go against the church's opposition to contraceptives, Obama said OK and changed the mandate to have insurance companies pay for it to avoid stepping on the religious beliefs of employers or employees.

Some Catholic groups applauded. Catholic bishops and most Republicans called the mandate an attack on religion.

I was asked what I thought. I could see merit in both arguments before the compromise, but after the tweaking, I truly don't see what all the fuss is about.

If I were Methodist and an X-ray technician at a Catholic hospital, I would hope to get the same health care coverage as I would if I worked at a Baptist hospital. Why is it fair for the Catholic hospital to impose its beliefs on me, when I'm not Catholic?

And what if that hospital is the only one within 50 miles of where I live? Should I be forced to move to get affordable health care?

I was speaking with my friend Cara Richards, a retired anthropology professor at Transylvania University, about this. She wasn't at all pleased with the political spin on this issue.

She said the U.S. Constitution doesn't allow the government to support any particular religion, but it actually does just that when religious-based hospitals take federal funding. "We shouldn't be giving government money to the hospitals that insist we have to abide by their religious views," Richards said. "We are helping to enforce Roman Catholicism on those who are not Catholic."

Richards isn't anti-Catholic by any means. "I am perfectly happy for them to have their beliefs," she said. "But if I go to a public hospital, I don't expect to be forced to abide by their religious beliefs."

She then said something that gave me pause.

What if the hospital were Muslim-supported and forced everyone to fast during Ramadan? Would we be happy if Jewish hospitals served only kosher foods?

"I don't think a hospital would be foolish enough to do that," Richards said.

What I don't understand is why the religious freedom of the institution trumps a non-Catholic employee's religious freedom?

According to The De Paulia, the student newspaper at DePaul University, the largest Catholic university in the nation, that institution already offers contraceptives in its fully insured HMO and self-insured plans. Several other universities do as well.

DePaul's president, the Rev. Dennis Holtschneider, told the newspaper, "DePaul fully supports the bishops' stance, but has offered (contraceptive) benefits ever since both Illinois and the federal government required us to do so several years ago."

No one accused Illinois of trampling on religious freedoms. Why are Republicans trying to make hay now?

Most women, Catholic and non-Catholic, want access to contraceptives, and an overwhelming majority of sexually active women take them.

With all the talk about too many food-stamp recipients and "blah people" on the dole during this presidential campaign, it would seem better family planning would be something the Republicans would champion.