America should be, and is, the land of the free. Its founders and its Constitution embraced freedom and liberty. Seeking to escape tyranny, the United States government was determined to enshrine this freedom as best as it could. While there are many compelling arguments to be made against the founding fathers about slavery, lack of equal suffrage, and even discrimination against poor white males, the fact remains that America was, and stood to become, one of the freest nations in history.
However, issues began to arise as the federal government started to attempt to define what rights people have. In Federalist Paper 84, Alexander Hamilton argues against the Bill of Rights. While he may have had ulterior reasons for disagreeing with such a Bill, the argument he uses—that the Bill of Rights repackages innate freedoms—is perfectly valid. Regarding freedom of the press, Hamilton claims that by defining a limit on restricting the press, the government is implicitly claiming the right to determine freedoms. Freedoms are therefore not natural, and instead become dependent on the Bill of Rights. Similarly, German philosopher Max Stirner claims that freedom under a charter is not freedom at all; the charter-writers give a person nothing but her own freedom returned, and that donated freedom can easily be taken away whenever there is conflict.
Such a conflict has gained prominence again in America today between people who believe the government should have the ability to determine the freedom possessed by its institutions and people, and those who believe that such freedoms are natural and the government is only permitted to infringe on them when others are at risk. This conflict is one of the underlying differences between the intellectual philosophies of the major political parties in the United States.
This tension has been highlighted recently by a rule that the Department of Health and Human Services attempted to impose on religiously affiliated institutions. The rule, a part of the Affordable Care Act (the piece of legislation frequently referred to as “Obamacare”), mandates that all employers must cover birth control as part of the health insurance packages they must provide to their employees. While there were specific exemptions for purely religious institutions, such as churches, mosques, and synagogues, no such exemptions were given to religiously affiliated institutions, including schools and hospitals.
The organization that has become the focus for much of the vitriol on both sides of this debate is the Catholic Church and its affiliates. These institutions want to be able to provide their employees with health insurance that does not conflict with the moral tenets of the Church, and the Affordable Care Act impedes their ability to do that. When the government attempted to put forth a compromise, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops rejected it. The council believes that even though an exception was given, the United States government should not have the ability to grant such an exception, because it should not have the ability to regulate religious practices.
Democrats, and the current leaders of the Democratic Party, have for the most part declared themselves pro-choice. Unfortunately, it does not seem that they respect the freedom of choice for those who disagree with their platform. While the choice to go to Planned Parenthood is lauded by Democrats, the choice not to break with religious beliefs and refrain from covering contraceptives is not. In 1968, Pope Paul IV’s Humanae Vitae clearly labeled artificial contraception a moral evil. Individuals shouldn’t have to accept this designation, but as Americans they should respect the right of others to hold that view. It should be noted that these institutions aren’t arguing against providing insurance to their employees, but merely that they should not be forced to embrace contraceptives, like the morning-after pill, that offend their beliefs. Forcing the hand of these religious institutions seems to be merely the next step in the government’s constant encroachment upon the freedoms and liberties of its people.
The idea that government should serve to protect people from those who wish to do them harm is relatively uncontroversial. However, there seems to be another idea guiding much of politics today—that the government has a responsibility to protect people from themselves. The fundamental difference between these two ideas is that the latter makes it necessary to limit a person’s actions. This sort of paternalistic action is both insulting and dangerous. In the case of the contraceptive rule, it means that the government believes that it knows best for the employees of religiously affiliated universities and hospitals. While the government can claim that it’s doing what’s best for the employers in terms of the physical health of its employees, there is no need or basis for its authority to extend to employers’ ideas of moral health. Even those who disagree with the Catholic Church’s stance on birth control should agree with its right to hold it and act accordingly.
While there’s a clear case to be made concerning the infringement of the First Amendment of the United States, as well as Supreme Court jurisprudence concerning the relationship of religion and government, there’s another question that begs to be asked: Why does the government feel the need to impose its morality on others? The U.S. government should be a body that tries to best represent the will of its constituent people, in a way that helps the country move forward. With shifting administrations and leaders, it’s understandable that individual stances on religion and contraception change. But in the same way that many people would feel remiss if a particularly religious president and Secretary of Health and Human Services were to outlaw contraception, it’s not difficult to understand the stance of those who feel the government is insisting on imposing its morality on its citizenry. It would be an infringement on a library’s freedom if the government banned books that it believed its citizens were not responsible enough to read, and it’s no different when a religious institution is forced to provide free contraception because its workers are deemed too irresponsible by the government to take care of the issue by themselves.
In a press release, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops claimed that the aforementioned compromise “continues to involve needless government intrusion in the internal governance of religious institutions and to threaten government coercion of religious people and groups to violate their most deeply held beliefs.” This powerful statement encompasses much of the danger of the current set of rules. While the ‘Free Exercise Clause’ of the First Amendment has limits on exactly what religious customs may be practiced, this arose largely in response to direct conflicts between the law and religion; this clause does not protect, for instance, plural marriages or human sacrifices that are or could in theory be permitted by some religions. Refusing to fund contraceptives does not endanger society as something like human sacrifice would. So, when the belief under question does nothing to directly harm others, as is the case currently with the Catholic Church, religions and their affiliated institutions should be able to operate with minimal government interference, and to implicitly infringe upon religious belief is to challenge the very foundations of American liberty.
Eric Wessan is a second-year in the College majoring in political science.