Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Blunt Talk

Since the GOP cannot repeal the Affordable Care Act, it will just try to render it ineffective with amendments and then argue, “See?  We told you it wouldn’t work.”

The latest attempt at weakening can be found in the Blunt Amendment, which would “ensure that health care stakeholders retain the right to provide, purchase, or enroll in health coverage that is consistent with their religious beliefs and moral convictions” under the Affordable Care Act.  Doesn’t that sound nice and inclusive?  I’m sympathetic to the idea that, as a matter of conscience, people shouldn’t be compelled to pitch in and pay for products or services they find morally objectionable.

For the Catholics, contraception and abortion can be excluded. For the Jehovahs Witnesses, no coverage for blood transfusions or clotting factor.  For the Mormons and the Muslims, you have to prove your liver disease was caused by something other than alcohol before you get treatment.  For the Scientologists, no psychiatric drugs covered, for the Christian Scientists, most other drugs not covered.   For Orthodox Jews, no coverage for injuries that occur while violating the Sabbath, such as riding in a car.

In other words, it’s easy to be coldly analytical, even dismissive, of beliefs that aren’t very popular, even though, technically, one of the founding principles of our nation is that religious truth isn’t a popularity contest.  “Religious beliefs and moral convictions” can be a bit messy when the beliefs and morals don’t match your own.

At some point, shouldn’t we recognize that our government is, thank goodness, in no position to referee the validity of particular moral claims of faith groups?  Shouldn’t we recognize that participation in society sometimes requires people, for the greater good, to set aside their divinely ordained beliefs and get with the program?  I mean, people work on Sundays nowadays, but they didn’t always.  Keep Holy the Sabbath is Rule # 3 last time I checked, so that means it’s in the Top 5.

The popular issue in the press involves Catholic beliefs and teachings, but there are other examples of religious freedom being abridged in America.  It was only last year that Park 51 was the hot topic.  Remember that?  Muslims wanted to build a mosque a few blocks from Ground Zero, and zealots found that particular exercise of religious freedom unacceptable.  In Minneapolis in 2007, controversy swirled when Muslim cab drivers refused to transport passengers from the airport that were carrying alcohol.  The Metropolitan Airport Commission reported that 5,400 would-be taxi passengers at the airport were refused service for this very reason.  Passenger Bob Dildine says he waited for 20 minutes, and five cab drivers would not give him and his daughter a ride. He was carrying wine he bought on vacation.

"They're here to provide service to people," said Dildine. "We were a lawful customer, and we were denied service. That's not our way of doing things."  Apparently, one man’s religious accommodation or exercise of religious freedom conflicts with another’s.  And that’s the crux of the argument, isn’t it?  It is not a question of religious freedom – it’s a question of competing rights, and finding the perfect balance is difficult.

Noah Millman of the American Conservative asks us to perform a thought experiment: Pretend it’s not the Catholic Church at the center of the current controversy over the rights of religious institutions to exercise moral judgments regarding their employees’ health care plans.

Instead, Millman suggests we pretend it’s the Church of Scientology.

 And pretend that the flash point of controversy isn’t coverage of contraception, which violates Catholic teachings, but coverage of mental-health services — psychology, psychiatry and mood-stabilizing drugs, all of which violate the teachings of Scientology.

If the Scientologists operated a network of schools and hospitals, would the pundit classes be rushing to the ramparts bellowing about religious liberty in defense of the right of these schools and hospitals to deny mental-health coverage even to employees who don’t belong to their faith?

More likely, Millman suggests, the dispassionate public-policy question would be, “Should it be OK to systematically disadvantage employees of Church of Scientology schools because that church has a weird hang-up about mental-health services?”

I was wondering whether Mormon employers are allowed to exclude insurance coverage for treatment of alcoholism?   For example, would they deny a claim for emergency detox?  Would they exclude coverage of the drug, Antabuse?  If they have done so in the past, will they seek a "religious exemption" under the AHCA, similar to what the Catholics did?  After all “religious beliefs and moral convictions” are at stake here.

The highest courts in New York and California held that Catholic Charities must abide by the rule that mandates contraceptive coverage in employer policies in those states.  They ruled that there was no violation of the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. That’s because the law doesn’t “substantially burden” anyone’s religious practice and is one of general applicability that was not targeted at infringing a particular religious practice.

To permit religious beliefs to “excuse compliance with otherwise valid laws regulating matters the state is free to regulate,” would, the California Supreme Court wrote in its 2004 decision, quoting from a U.S. Supreme Court case, “‘make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.’”

“Every citizen to become a law unto himself” may be a Libertarian fantasy, but I do not see that as a recipe for a healthy society.

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