Over the past several weeks, a new Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) mandate has incited a national debate about the appropriate role of government in our lives and the right of religious institutions to the free exercise of their faiths.
This new mandate required employer-sponsored health-insurance plans to provide coverage for prescription contraceptives, including abortion-inducing pills, and sterilization. Many faith-based institutions, most conspicuously the Catholic Church, believe these services to be deeply immoral and rightly indicated that they would have to close their doors rather than violate their deeply held religious beliefs.
After weeks of public backlash, the administration responded on February 10 by offering what it called an “accommodation.” According to its modified ruling, religious institutions will theoretically be exempt from covering contraception, but the insurance companies that provide the plans will be mandated to cover the price of the controversial services for “free.”
The administration claims that religious institutions no longer have a valid religious objection because they are no longer obligated to cover contraception. Instead, women can choose individually to have controversial services free of charge.
This is pure sophistry and flies in the face of economic reality. Private, for-profit businesses do not provide services for free regardless of fiats issued by the government. Clearly, contraception services are not free — pharmaceuticals and doctor visits do not grow on trees — and their costs will be passed along in higher premiums for employers.
Moreover, some Catholic institutions are self-insured. For them, the distinction between employer and insurer in the president’s “accommodation” is meaningless. In the end, all institutions will still be required to pay, either directly or indirectly, for all mandated services, including those services deemed objectionable on moral grounds.
Understandably, religious members of many different faiths continue to oppose this top-down “accommodation.” After all, our nation’s founding is deeply rooted in the principle of religious freedom. This basic tenet forms the beginning of the First Amendment which states, in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The Obama administration’s overreaching government mandate threatened not only religious communities with a moral objection to the mandated services, but also members of all religious faiths who believe in protecting their First Amendment right to exercise their religious beliefs.
The crux of this debate is not about one’s attitude toward religion or one’s views on Catholic doctrine. Rather, this debate is about freedom of religion, and more broadly, personal freedom. It should not matter to people whether they are comfortable with insurance plans providing contraception. What should matter is whether they are comfortable with government imposing its will on religious entities.
Our Founding Fathers were not ambiguous on this issue. They understood that a government with the power to dictate policy would not willingly cede its power over time. Instead, that power would grow and gradually erode the religious liberty that makes our country unique.
This central tension between a growing government and personal freedom lies at that heart of the larger debate over President Barack Obama’s health-care program. When we allow government to dictate the terms of what should be private arrangements — in this case, health care — a loss of personal freedom, even religious freedom, is inevitable.
By their very nature, government mandates reduce personal freedom. Obamacare’s mandates force workers to sacrifice wages in return for mandates they may not value as much as the wages. The question we need to ask is: Why does the government force that requirement on people, instead of leaving it up to employers and employees to work out?
Sadly, this will not be the last health-care mandate to spark a debate in our country. As President Obama’s overreaching health-care program comes into effect, we are bound to discover many more mandates encroaching on a range of our freedoms.
Thomas Jefferson wisely predicted, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground.” Today we are witnessing the fulfillment of this prescient warning, and, if we allow government to gain ground today, we will be yielding many more liberties tomorrow.
— Pat Toomey is a United States senator from Pennsylvania. This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this weekend and is reprinted with the author’s permission.