Why Gays Should Let Catholics Be Silly

by Jonathan Rauch on February 8, 2012

Most of my gay friends, including libertarian-leaning ones, have no problem with the Obama Administration’s decision to require Catholic-affiliated employers, such as hospitals and charities, to cover contraception in their health plans. The policy has caused a row, and Obama seems to be looking for a way to back off.

He should, imho. I’m a fan of religious-liberty exceptions even though I’m an atheist who thinks the church’s position on contraception is absurd and harmful—and even though most American Catholics agree with me, not their church. (I’m told, in fact, that many Catholic-affiliated employers quietly provide contraceptive coverage right now, without the church’s making an issue of it.)

And I’m a fan of religious exceptions not despite being gay but because of it.

My gay friends say, “Look, we can’t go around giving exemptions to anyone who objects to some law on religious grounds. If we did, what would happen to antidiscrimination laws protecting gays, among lots of other things?” Yes, up to a point. But where’s that point? These same gay friends tend to favor a default assumption that any religious institution that receives any federal money, or even a tax break, should have to follow every jot and tittle of every federal law.

I accept, as I think all religious-liberty advocates do, that saying “It’s my religion” can’t be a magic wand exempting you from law. But that’s a straw man. I’m guessing we can all agree that the First Amendment gives religious-affiliated institutions some autonomy (quite a lot, actually, if you read the text: “make NO law”), yet in practice today we find ourselves arguing over whether it gives them any meaningful autonomy. Roll over, James Madison.

I think the starting point for discussion should be, “What’s the most—not the least—amount of leeway we can give to religious institutions without undermining important social or governmental ends?” First, because it’s what Madison and the founders intended, and they were smarter than we are. Second, because it’s good social policy to avoid unnecessary conflict. Third, because erring on the side of diversity is a partial brake on the natural but dangerous tendency toward absolutism in the exercise of power.

Years ago, in a Harper’s article, I made the case for pluralism over purism. It’s still the right answer. Society has a positive interest in the preservation of dissent and heterodoxy. People who are so certain they’re right that they’d stamp out alternative practices and beliefs might want to have a second think. Especially if they’re gay.

{ 13 comments }

Hunter February 8, 2012 at 9:09 am

I wasn’t going to comment, but two points:

“I accept, as I think all religious-liberty advocates do, that saying “It’s my religion” can’t be a magic wand exempting you from law. But that’s a straw man.”

If I’m reading your statement correctly, it’s not a straw man at all — it’s a justification that has been used repeatedly by conservative Christians on a variety of issues, starting with pharmacists and including more than one country clerk in New York state.

“People who are so certain they’re right that they’d stamp out alternative practices and beliefs might want to have a second think.”

I can’t believe you directed this toward the gay community. I really can’t. Just who is it that you think we’re up against?

Houndentenor February 8, 2012 at 3:02 pm

So long as the Catholic Church continues to block prosecution of child rapists and those who abetted them in their crimes, it is absurd for them to be a moral authority in any way or claim a moral objection to anything. The corruption goes all the way up to Ratzinger. Let us know when they have purged the criminals from the clergy and then they might deserve some respect. Not before.

another steve February 8, 2012 at 4:57 pm

Constitutional rights have NOTHING to do with whether you think an organization is good or bad. Constitutional rights mean that Nazis get to hold marches, because when the rights of those you think are despicable are rolled over, the rights of everyone are imperiled.

Houndentenor February 9, 2012 at 6:55 pm

So birth control pills is where the RCC is taking a stand? Really?
This isn’t a constitutional issue. This is a smokescreen from an institution that has never taken moral OR legal responsibility for heinous crimes. Just this week Cardinal Egan said that he didn’t think the church did anything wrong regarding the child rape scandal. I fail to see how paying for birth control pills as part of a health care plan is even a fraction as heinous as aiding and abetting rapists.

CB February 9, 2012 at 2:15 pm

I just think it’s political BS because, (a) the church already operates under laws like this one in many states, and (b) this moral scrutiny only seems to apply to women’s sexual health choices. No one seems to find the need to investigate whether men are using Viagra to commit adultery. It’s not about conscience, it’s about control.

andrew long February 9, 2012 at 2:35 pm

“I’m guessing we can all agree that the First Amendment gives religious-affiliated institutions some autonomy (quite a lot, actually, if you read the text: “make NO law”),”

No, in fact, we can’t. The First Amendment “gives” nothing to anyone. It *prevents* the government from abridging our natural rights, in two specific instances from making any law that either respects “an establishment of religion” or prohibits “the free exercise thereof.”

This contraception rule in no way prohibits the free exercise of religion. Our many different levels of government and our many diverse religious institutions long ago came to agreements on what, for exactly these purposes, constituted a place where religion was practiced (church, seminary, mission, synagogue, mosque, etc.), and where it was not practiced (secular service, education, and charitable organizations, etc.) If an institution like Notre Dame or a Catholic hospital qualifies as a place of worship, they will be exempt.

But they don’t, so they aren’t. Because they are a secular workplace, just like most other employers. They are prohibited from hiring on the basis of religion. Churches are not. If Notre Dame cannot hire on the basis of religion, why should it be allowed to deny employee benefits on the basis of religion?

Btw: most of these secular, religiously-affiliated institutions already provide insurance plans that cover not only contraceptives but also vasectomies and tubal ligations. They are, right now, violating their own moral beliefs, voluntarily. Oops.

BobN February 9, 2012 at 5:15 pm

The Catholic bishops are fighting over contraceptives in order to get an exemption that they will then apply to same-sex marriage.

That’s all this is about.

Jorge February 9, 2012 at 9:49 pm

I think the church views the issue of abortion as a little more important than the issue of gay marriage.

BobN February 10, 2012 at 9:35 pm

That’s not the point, Jorge. The Church has lived with “unacceptable” insurance requirements in 28 states.

Why is it just now that they feel under siege? What has changed? Gay rights is what has changed.

You just watch… and start thinking about buying a hat, a cheap one, that you can prepare to eat.

Jorge February 10, 2012 at 10:21 pm

That’s not the point, Jorge. The Church has lived with “unacceptable” insurance requirements in 28 states.

You just watch… and start thinking about buying a hat, a cheap one, that you can prepare to eat.

If this is true, then what I expect to see as I watch will be the church slaughtered over this very point. Just as what I actually expect to happen is the Obama administration slaughtered for the requirement that religious-based institutions provide coverage for abortions.

Why is it just now that they feel under siege? What has changed? Gay rights is what has changed.

Fine, I’ll address your point. You’re right, but for the wrong reasons.

I have a hard time understanding why gay marriage should factor into this at all. Everyone knows that most Christian religions don’t approve of gay marriage. No one is saying they should be forced to marry gays. Wise legislators (like in NY, not that other state) recognize that religious exemptions are important.

But with the attack on Catholic Charities over adoptions by gay couples, there is a dire writing on the wall that wasn’t there a short time ago. I can understand the impulse to sally forth rather than wait for a siege.

BobN February 16, 2012 at 4:56 pm

An attack on CC? By whom?

Houndentenor February 17, 2012 at 11:01 am

No one has attacked CC. If they are going to take GOVERNMENT MONEY then they are not allowed to discriminate against the TAXPAYERS who provided that money. If they want to discriminate, then they are free to do that with their own funds. The RCC is the weathiest organization int he world. They could afford to make up the funds if they wanted to. They’d rather play victim while they go about their foul behavior (see: child rape scandal).

Jorge February 18, 2012 at 12:38 am

This is getting very old. Were you raped by a priest as a kid or something?

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