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President Barack Obama recently announced that religiously-affiliated employers must provide their employees with free access to contraception in their health care plans. This decision has drawn particular ire from Catholic universities, especially given that the policy may be altered to include students.

Catholic priests and Republican candidates have assailed this decision as an “assault on religious liberty” because the law forces universities to provide a service that is opposed by the Church’s moral teachings. However, institutions and employers that receive federal or state financial assistance (whether directly via grants or indirectly via tax relief or other subsidies) should provide access to birth control. It goes against the public interest and basic common sense to think otherwise.

While the argument that the Obama administration violates Catholic employers’ religious liberty when it requires them to provide contraception might seem straightforward, legal precedent does not support this view. The government has always been empowered to grant some religious exceptions to legal requirements and not others. For example, in 1879 the Supreme Court ruled in Reynolds v. United States that prohibiting polygamy did not violate a Mormon’s freedom of religion, because the societal costs of allowing plural marriage were too great. On the other hand, in 1972 the Court ruled that Amish children could not be forced to attend school after the eighth grade because forcing them to do so violated their parents’ religious freedom.

Not all religious exemptions from state and federal law are created equal in the eyes of the government. Thus, it is up to the legislature and the judiciary to determine which religious exemptions from existing law the Constitution protects. This is a dangerous situation in which we find ourselves, with the government holding the power to grant some theological arguments more legitimacy than others. Respect for freedom of religion is fundamental, but a religious exception that risks public health by preventing thousands of people from obtaining basic health services should not be permitted.

One particularly insensitive argument came from Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. He asserts that students who do not like the contraception policies at Catholic colleges should simply attend another university: “No one would go to a Jewish barbecue and expect pork chops to be served.” In other words: If you don’t like the rules, don’t play the game.

This argument is specious. First, it is difficult to imagine a student being able to anticipate her need for birth control prior to attending college. The requirement that sexually active women transfer to other universities is both thoughtless and unrealistic. Second, many young women take birth control pills out of medical necessity and do not use it as contraception that the Church abhors. Third, the same argument can easily be made against administrators of Catholic universities. If the rule that an institution’s insurance must cover birth control is so offensive, perhaps it is time for university administrators to explore a new industry or at least refuse to accept federal funding.

The Catholic Church hierarchy opposes contraception while the vast majority of its adherents do not. Nighty-eight percent of sexually active Catholic women use some form of contraception, indicating that the vast majority of Catholic women do not share the official views of the Church with respect to birth control. Mutual respect for religious beliefs is part of what makes America an attractive place for many, but there comes a time when it must bow to the needs of public health.  

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