Thursday, October 4, 2012

Religious Freedom, HHS Guidelines, and My Right to Deny Rights to You: Limits of Corporations Are People Argument

I just noted that the religious freedom argument of the leaders of the Catholic church and the religious right is strongly premised on the assertion of a right for themselves that they do not wish or intend for others--in particular, for those who disagree with them about neuralgic moral issues including women's rights, contraception, homosexuality, abortion, etc.  Under the guise of defending religious freedom, what the leaders of the Catholic church and the religious right are actually defending is the opposite of freedom for all citizens and members of various faith communities who reach a different moral conclusion than does the Catholic church and the religious right on these neuralgic issues:

Freedom for me.  Not for thee.

On behalf of the U.S. Catholic bishops, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, to whose latest posting at the USCCB blog I just linked, argues that fellow Catholics who reach moral conclusions different from those of the hierarchy do not even have a right to speak!  Note how what Sister Walsh is claiming in this blog posting dovetails with the claims now being made by various co-belligerents of the USCCB as they file lawsuits trying to undermine the HHS guidelines of the Obama administration, which require employers to provide access to contraceptives in healthcare plans.  As Sarah Posner reports at Religious Dispatches yesterday, Tyndale House Publishers (via the Alliance Defending Freedom) has just filed yet another of these lawsuits.

Tyndale is a for-profit bible-publishing company.  Posner notes that the basis for its lawsuit is that the bible clearly forbids abortion, and ella and Plan B, which will be provided in insurance plans through the HHS guidelines, are abortifacients.  (As Posner notes, the claim that ella and Plan B are abortifacients is a "falsehood."  The overriding conclusion to which one well-conducted scientific study after another points is that the two drugs work to delay ovulation, not to prevent the implantation of a fertilized zygote: Pam Belluck reported on these scientific conclusions this past June for New York Times, which then published an editorial summing up the conclusions--and see Eduardo Peñalver at Commonweal on the implications of these scientific studies for Catholic moral thinking).

The Tyndale lawsuit takes a never-mind-about-truth approach to this scientific consensus about how the "morning-after" pill works, and demands that Tyndale's reading of the bible prevail over the law and over the right to adequate healthcare of Tyndale employees, through the Tyndale insurance plan.  The Tyndale case states,

Among the biblical principles the company is committed to following is respect for the inviolable sanctity of the life of every human being as created in the image and likeness of God from the moment of conception/fertilization (cf. Jeremiah 1:5; Genesis 1:26). 

As Sarah Posner notes, if we follow the logic of this argument and allow it to set a precedent in how we handle issues of religious freedom in the U.S., we'll arrive at the following place: not only any church or religious institution, but any for-profit employer like Tyndale, will have the right to point to its own peculiar reading of its sacred scriptures as a basis for demanding exemptions from laws that apply to all other citizens.  As a basis for trampling on the rights of other citizens.

Just because.  Because these for-profit employers say so.  Because they believe so.  And this is what religious freedom is all about, isn't it?  My right to believe?  And my right, on the basis of my belief, to deny rights to you when my scriptures say so.  Or when my peculiar reading of my sacred scriptures says so, to be more precise, because not all religious traditions sharing a set of scriptures reach the same conclusion about them.  And within any given faith community, there's likely to be variety of conclusions about what the scriptures mean and how they apply to the world around us today.

Posner notes,

Think about that for a minute: Tyndale is alleging that because it believes that Jeremiah 1:15 and Genesis 1:26 state that life begins "from the moment of conception/fertilization," that by requiring it to cover ella and Plan B, which by its own admission "can" (i.e., just might) "cause the demise of an already conceived/fertilized human embryo," the government is violating Tyndale's right to freely practice its religion. Think about the precedent Tyndale is asking the court to set: that any for-profit company in America could point to the Bible (or, for that matter, the Qu'ran) and say, "look, it says I must not do X. Government regulation A" (which is generally applicable to everyone and based on public health/science/or other policy analysis) "requires me to do X. Exempt me."

As Posner also notes, even those sympathetic to the USCCB argument that non-profit Catholic institutions beyond churches should be exempt from the HHS guidelines because serving Catholic values as an integral part of their mission is woven into their mission (e.g., as Catholic healthcare institutions) are nervous about this "Taco Bell exemption" argument, since it extends the principle of religious freedom so far and so wide that just about anybody can claim a religiously based right to deny rights to others if the Taco Bell argument prevails.  Just because.  Because they say so.  Because they believe so.

As she also notes, we are now seeing an "evolution of the claims" being made by those opposing the HHS guidelines.  The lawsuits began with Catholic non-profits claiming a right to exempt themselves from cooperating with contraceptive coverage (though Catholic opponents of the guidelines have also persistently spread the same falsehood the Tyndale case is seeking to promote, that ella and Plan B are abortifacients).  Then the suits evolved in another directions: evangelical non-profits (which have never in the past claimed to oppose contraception) began to claim that their consciences were burdened by the requirement to provide ella and Plan B.  

Now we've reached the points at which for-profit groups are claiming exemptions that, essentially, turn their corporations into persons with tender consciences, consciences that the law must protect because these groups claim to be faith-based.  As the New York Times notes in an editorial statement this morning, these for-profit groups are also claiming that their businesses are tantamount to churches, synagogues, or mosques and must enjoy the exemptions afforded to houses of worship, simply because the for-profit businesses have religious tags attached to themselves.

As the editorial also notes, Judge Carol Jackson, a George H.W. Bush-appointed judge in Missouri, has just rejected that argument in the case of a mining company that sought to be exempt from the HHS guidelines on the basis of its anti-contraceptive religious views.  The editorial calls on other judges to follow Judge Jackson in rejecting these Taco Bell exemption arguments, and it does so for reasons that appear obvious to me: allowing any and all corporations to claim the "right" to act as persons with consciences, and to deny rights to their employees on the basis of the "conscience" of the corporation--just because the corporation says so--would set a deeply troubling precedent for American society.

It would set a deeply corrosive precedent for any democratic society that hopes to build humane and just social structures, because it would permit veto power to virtually anyone who claims a religiously based right to be exempt from laws serving the common good, on the grounds of peculiar religious belief.  For further analysis by Sarah Posner of the Missouri decision and the argument that faith-based corporations are people with consciences, see this recent Religion Dispatches article.

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