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Jane Ahlin, Published February 25 2012

Ahlin: They would force religious doctrine on all Americans

President Barack Obama believes in compromise. Most recently, when a brouhaha erupted over defining religious employers as those whose purpose is religious, whose employees mostly share the religion’s tenets and whose service mostly affects those sharing the tenets, the president listened to the religious leaders who were upset and made concessions.

Yes, employers, such as religiously affiliated hospitals, universities, and nursing homes – entities whose primary purpose is not religious and who employ and serve people of all faiths or no faith – would still be required to let their employees access birth control through health insurance; however, the insurance companies, not the employers, would absorb the cost. In other words, employers with religious affiliations would not have to pay for insurance covering birth control (and, of course, churches remain exempt). Problem solved.

Alas, paying wasn’t the issue. Quickly obvious, money was no more than a smokescreen for forcing one particular religious ideology on as many Americans as possible. Claiming religious freedom for themselves, but utterly ignoring the religious freedom of workers in jobs that have nothing to do with religion, religious leaders thumbed their noses at the president and his compromise.

Of course, with today’s Republican Party under the thumb of the extreme social right wing, religious objections were followed by a “conscience amendment” proposed by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. Although aimed at employers who wish to exclude birth control from insurance coverage, the amendment provides carte blanche for employers to deny insurance for “moral objections” to any health-related issue.

In fact, the Blunt amendment opens an exemption door so wide that – should it pass – the notion of Americans being guaranteed basic medical services under the new health care law becomes laughable.

For instance, an employer who believes in Scientology could exempt anything to do with depression and mental illness, and an employer who is Jehovah’s Witness could exempt blood transfusions. At the same time, because moral objections aren’t only religious in nature, someone who doesn’t approve of premarital sex could exempt STD screening or prenatal care for unmarried employees; an employer who sees obesity as a moral failing could exempt obesity-related disease, such as sleep apnea or even Type 2 diabetes. The list goes on and on.

In the ensuing media flap, what seems to have gotten lost is that religiously affiliated businesses still are businesses – not only businesses but also businesses that receive taxpayer dollars. (Nobody refers to a hospital as a “church” or a university as a “church”; they are entirely different entities.) Hospitals, nursing homes and universities all belly up to the taxpayer bar for government funds and as such, should not have the right to step on the rights of those they employ.

One of the condescending remarks made when the religious freedom of workers comes up is that workers who don’t like religious dictums denying them some health care benefits (benefits all other Americans have) should quit and work for a different employer. Let’s consider that, particularly in the context of today’s tough job market when people don’t dare leave their jobs. Also consider folks in rural states, such as North Dakota, where there aren’t other choices for employment. For instance, in a small town, the only employer for RNs, LPNs and CNAs likely is a nursing home/care center – a business most often religiously affiliated. But those nurses aren’t doing a religious job; nor is there any other place nearby for them to work in the profession for which they trained, not to mention many have farmer/rancher spouses and could not move if they wanted to.

With a U.S. government survey showing that 99 percent of all American women (98 percent of Catholic women) use birth control during their reproductive years, sheer numbers make contraception the most basic medical need of women across the socioeconomic spectrum. The only real question is why the national Republican Party is pretending it’s not.


Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.