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Jewish World Review March 20, 2001 / 25 Adar, 5761

John Leo

John Leo
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Consumer Reports

Hold that conscience

Forcing religious groups
to betray their beliefs -- HERE in New York, Cardinal Edward Egan had a little chat with Gov. George Pataki last week about whether Roman Catholic institutions should be forced to provide contraceptive services and the "morning after" pill for their female employees.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Planned Parenthood think they should. The cardinal disagrees. He thinks it's not a legitimate use of state power to force churches and religious institutions to violate their own principles. This is a wildly controversial idea in Albany, where Silver and the Assembly Democrats have torn the usual "conscience clause" out of the two health bills they passed for women.

The Republican-dominated Senate passed the bills with clauses allowing religious groups to opt out of some provisions on moral grounds. The bill requires employers to offer a broad array of reproductive services in their health plans, including mammograms, Pap smears, osteoporosis screening, contraception, and various fertility procedures, some of which the Catholic Church considers immoral. This whole progressive package is in jeopardy because it got tangled in Planned Parenthood's national campaign to bring the churches (and Orthodox synagogues) to heel. Planned Parenthood and its allies in the abortion wars are out to eliminate conscience clauses everywhere. They even have a brand-new phrase to make acting on conscience sound backward and shady: "refusal clauses." With a little prodding, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission bought the dubious argument that "conscience clauses" are violations of antidiscrimination law.

So far the public and the news media have paid little attention to the debate, because contraceptive funding seems like a ho-hum issue. Most people, including many Catholics, do not consider contraception immoral. But some religious leaders think this is a slippery slope. The slide could lead to mandatory funding of the abortion pill, euthanasia, and assisted suicide. So, many churches feel they have to make a stand here, before they are dragooned into funding new abortion medicines, cloning, and suicide pills. Joe Loconte of the Heritage Foundation wrote: "It is no whimsy to worry when people are forced to bankroll whatever reproductive practices are in vogue–today chemical abortion, tomorrow cloning."

Forced doctrine? Last summer the Washington, D.C., City Council tried to force all District employers to provide coverage for contraceptives and some abortifacients, with no exemption for conscience. With a burst of Ted Turner-style Catholic baiting, a councilman angrily waved around a picture of the pope, railing about dogma and the folly of "surrendering decision on public-health matters to the church." The National Association of Evangelicals expressed sympathy for Catholic leaders, saying that "requring birth control coverage is a veritable assault on the integrity of their religious institutions." The D.C. council passed the bill unanimously, but when Congress threatened to intervene, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams pocket-vetoed the bill.

In New York, the state Catholic Conference has a lot of clout on the basis of its massive spending on the poor and the sick. The group says flatly it will not be implicated in delivering services it considers immoral. But it is open to the idea of having the employees of Catholic institutions get these services directly from the state. The health bills affect millions of women, but only 10,000 to 20,000 would be affected by the conscience clause. The Catholic Conference says it would cost the state $4 million or $5 million a year to pick up the cost of contraception for these women.

So far, the strangest outcome of a struggle over a conscience clause has been in California. The state passed a law allowing only narrow use of the clause. It can be claimed by religious organizations that hire only adherents of their faith and devote their efforts to religious training. This turns Catholic charities, colleges, and hospitals into "secular" institutions, which must therefore provide coverage the church considers immoral. It is a nonsolution that makes little sense. If Catholics wanted to bar non-Catholics from their institutions in order to qualify for the exemption, they would have to violate state and federal antidiscrimination laws. Besides, even core institutions like seminaries and individual churches and rectories commonly have non-Catholic employees. More broadly, the California law reflects the elite notion that religion should be driven from the public square. If religious attempts to serve and change the culture can be separated out as somehow secular, faith isn't much more than an offstage pastime.

The central issue here is an attempt to use state power to force churches to violate their own principles. Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago Divinity School calls this an example of "liberal monism," an enforced monoculture created by people who talk expansively about freedom and pluralism but who, in fact, work to erase pluralism and bring private groups into line with state orthodoxy. The "conscience clause" issue has obvious implications for a government alliance with faith-based social action groups. If we want a partnership, forcing churches to compromise their moral beliefs is not a great start.

JWR contributor John Leo's latest book is Incorrect Thoughts : Notes on Our Wayward Culture. Send your comments by clicking here.


03/12/01: The no-speech culture
03/05/01: The 'transgendered' boom
02/27/01: Lovely monsters
02/20/01: When perfectly reasonable principles are carried too far
02/13/01: Bill and Hill are pills
02/06/01: Partner hopping
01/30/01: Sensitivity police
01/22/01: Found in the White House dumpster on Jan. 20, 2001
01/16/01: New slogan belies what the Army really is
01/08/01: The black dissent
01/03/01: The year's best quips on life, politics – and golf
12/19/00: Supreme confusion
12/11/00: Racial rhetoric conveniently ignores election facts
12/05/00: Savage fantasy
11/27/00: Victims of the year get the recognition they deserve
11/20/00: It's a chad, chad, chad, chad world
11/13/00: The election rhetoric is running much too high
11/07/00: How yesterday's hero becomes tomorrow's heel
10/30/00: Would Bush's Supreme Court picks make a difference?
10/24/00: Yankees, go home!
10/17/00: Un-American activity?
10/10/00: A tempest in an ink pot
10/03/00: The Al Gore quiz
09/26/00: The sleeper effect
09/19/00: Baby-saving made easy
09/12/00: Line between reporting and editorializing continues to blur
09/05/00: In the key of F
08/29/00: Hollywood connection
08/22/00: Some friendly advice to the GOP
08/15/00: You can't make this up
08/08/00: The niceness strategy
08/01/00: When rules don't count
07/25/00: Anti-male bias increasingly pervades our culture
07/18/00: Banned in Boston
07/12/00: What Jacoby had to deal with!
07/11/00: Will boys be boys?
07/05/00: Partial-sense decision
06/27/00: Attitude toward death penalty gets in the way of facts
06/20/00: Double troubles
06/13/00: Fools paradise
06/06/00: Accidental conspirator
05/30/00: Faking the hate
05/23/00: Was it law or poetry?
05/16/00: Here, there and everywhere, people have gone bonkers
05/09/00: Tufts evangelicals are punished for acting on their beliefs
05/02/00: Elian's opera isn't over until nearly everyone sings
04/25/00: All the news that fits: The media serve up many stories from a standard script
04/19/00: Those darned readers: The gap between reporters and the general public is huge
04/05/00: Census sense and nonsense
03/29/00: Hollywood message films leave no room for other views
03/22/00: The Vatican confesses, but is it enough?
03/14/00: Watch what you say: The left can no longer be counted on to defend free speech
03/07/00: McCain's malleable messages
03/01/00: Bush's appearance at Bob Jones U. will dog him all the way
02/23/00: 'Multi-millionaire' show is new evidence we're insane

Copyright ©2001 Universal Press Syndicate  Click here for more John Leo