Requiring Catholic Universities to Prescribe Birth Control to Students Violates the Constitution

Women’s health debates, particularly regarding birth control and abortion, have increasingly stirred the domestic political pot. Now, with the 2012 election season upon us, the Obama administration’s decisive support of the pro-choice platform is guiding the federal government’s stance on a divisive social issue and blurring the separation of church and state. The contraception mandate, fueling a showdown between the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Obama administration, should not require Catholic universities to violate their own moral code and belief system by prescribing birth control to students.

The New York Times recently explained how students at Catholic universities are unable to obtain contraceptives from university clinics. The Affordable Care Act, passed in March 2010 and controversial since its inception, requires companies that offer health insurance policies to employees to cover birth control costs without a co-payment as of August 1, 2013. This requirement was extended to employees of faith-based organizations, such as religious universities, and some fear the extension will eventually apply to students as well.

However, a move of this magnitude complicates the separation of church and state and may violate the Establishment Clause laid out in the First Amendment of the Constitution. The Lemon Test, designed to ensure that the Establishment Clause is being upheld, was developed in response to the Supreme Court 1971 landmark case Lemon v. Kurtzman. The court ruled: “First, the statute must have a secular legislation purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; finally, the statute must not foster ‘an excessive government entanglement with religion.’”

While the additional provisions for women’s health under that Affordable Care Act are for a secular purpose, requiring Catholic universities to provide health services to their students that violate the beliefs of the Catholic faith inhibits the religion, and does so on its own jurisdiction, the Catholic campus. If Catholic universities are required to provide birth control and access to Plan B to their students, it will be at fundamental odds with Catholic morality and teachings. 

Additionally, Catholic universities are private institutions and should be able to dictate their own health policies. The New York Times article also highlighted that Catholic universities, such as Fordham University, perform a delicate balancing act: complying with state laws by purchasing contraceptives and also upholding Catholic beliefs by declining to prescribe the purchased contraceptives to students. Students who choose to attend private, Catholic universities are well aware of the institution’s mission, vision, and belief system and should respect that system while attending the institution. Or, if students are opposed to the faith-based beliefs of the institution, the option of choosing a public education remains. 

While I am not personally opposed to the contraception mandate, I am opposed to blurring the lines between church and state. In the past, I have argued that specific religious perspectives and moral beliefs should not dictate policy; however, the reverse must also be true. Policy must not inhibit religion and blatantly oppose the beliefs and moral codes of religious teachings within their own educational institutions.

Photo Credit: Jilian Louise