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.