When Pliny the Younger was a provincial governor in the Roman Empire, he wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan asking whether he should execute Christians who refused to burn incense in worship of the emperor. Pliny, in keeping with the customs of the empire, did not care about forcing Christians to believe that the emperor was a god. But in public they had to behave as if they did. Thus, the Christians were in the dock not so much because of their faith in a risen Christ as over their willful refusal to declare themselves part of the reigning social order.
I thought of Pliny when I read that the Obama administration, in creating specific rules to implement Obamacare, will require all employers (with a very narrow exemption discussed below) to offer their employees health insurance that provides FDA-approved contraception, female sterilization, and other “reproductive” services free of charge — even if the employer is a religious organization and doing so violates its doctrine. I also recalled the times that President Obama and other members of his administration have supported “freedom of worship.” However, as in Pliny’s time, “freedom of worship” is not the same thing as “freedom of religion.” The former means that one may believe whatever one wants and worship privately without interference, whereas the latter allows one freedom to live in the world at large consistent with one’s faith tenets, even if they are not endorsed by the state.
Because the administration is knowingly forcing (primarily Catholic) religious organizations to pay for medical services to which they are theologically opposed, the new rules represent a frontal assault on freedom of religion at an institutional level. This is no small matter. To date, public controversies over “conscience” in health care have mostly involved individuals — e.g., doctors, nurses, pharmacists — whose personal morality or religious convictions conflicted with the provision of certain medical procedures or substances. For example, pharmacies in Washington State and Illinois have litigated over the right of owners to refuse to dispense contraception on religious grounds. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the pharmacies and in favor of a state regulation (since withdrawn for reconsideration) requiring them to dispense legally prescribed medications. An Illinois state court took the opposite view in a similar case.
But the free-birth-control rule goes much further than creating a potential conflict between the general law and individual religious beliefs. Rather, the rule targets the right of religious organizations to conduct their public activities consistently with their religious dogma and moral values — except within the narrow confines of an actual church, synagogue, mosque, temple, or monastery.