Catholic Hierarchy Lobbies to Suppress Religious Freedom

American Flag JesusWhat do Koch Industries and the Catholic hierarchy have in common? A determination to shift rights away from individuals and assign them to institutions.

Since the founding of the United States our ancestors have wrestled with the question of who counts.  Who gets the rights and dignity that define the promise of America? For two hundred years generations of Americans have fought to bring the rights of personhood and citizenship to those who had been excluded:  the landless poor, religious minorities, Blacks, First Nations, women, gays.  But always, as we have expanded those rights it has been with the goal of giving greater dignity and self-determination to individuals.

Now we have both multi-nationals and religious institutions seeking to do the opposite, to create rights/powers for organizations and ideologies that trump individual self-determination.  In their crusade to block medical access to contraception, marriage equality and death with dignity, religious institutional leaders are going after a non-profit version of corporate personhood. They want the organizations they control to have the legal rights of natural persons (in this case freedom of conscience/religion) just like multinational corporations want the legal rights of natural persons (in their case, free speech).  The only real difference is which rights they find most conducive to their ends.

Under Obama’s Affordable Care Act, places of worship and parochial schools are exempt from providing contraceptive coverage for their employees.  This week, the Catholic Bishops demanded the same exemption for affiliated hospitals, social service agencies, and colleges (all of which, incidentally, receive vast sums of public dollars to support their work and most of which serve majority non-Catholic clientele).  They insisted it was a matter of religious liberty. The Obama administration offered a solution that ensures contraceptive access for most American women.  But they sidestepped the deeper problem of religious leaders demanding an institutional right to violate human rights.

This is a matter of religious freedom, the Bishops say.  Yes.  It is.  Their aim is to suppress religious freedom.   Conflict exists only because the employees of these institutions have religious beliefs that are at odds with the religious hierarchy.  Employees of Catholic hospitals and Christian affiliated universities, including devout Christians, interpret God’s nature or God’s will in many ways. They don’t always agree with their leaders.  Many believe that it is morally permissible or even morally obligatory for them to plan their families, and they exercise their own freedom of conscience and religion by seeking contraception.

Catholic institutions now control 18% of U.S. hospitals, including many that have no competitor. They derive much of their power and financial wellbeing from public-          private mergers and from government funds.  The same is true of Catholic universities like Georgetown and Notre Dame. Perhaps a majority of American private colleges have their roots in one religious tradition or another. This means that at a practical level, individual persons are not free to exercise their own conscience if health care and educational institutions with religious roots suppress access to, for example, contraceptive services or death with dignity.

The hard won rights of natural persons belong to natural persons.  They are baked into our constitution for a reason – specifically to protect individual freedoms against the aggregated power of institutions, whether those institutions are motivated by political power, religious ideology or money. The cry of religious freedom should be long and loud in this fight, and it should be coming from those of us who believe that freedom of conscience is far too sacred to be given over to institutions.

Read More:
On Loving Life and Leaving It

Eight Ugly Sins the Catholic Bishops Hope Lay Members and Others Won’t Notice
The Difference Between a Dying Fetus and a Dying Woman

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington.  She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of  Her articles can be found at

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
This entry was posted in Christianity in the Public Square, Reproductive Health and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Catholic Hierarchy Lobbies to Suppress Religious Freedom

  1. Tim Martin says:

    Hmm… let me start off by saying that I love your posts! But in this case I’m confused by your beef with the catholic bishops’ demands.

    One would think that an organization would be free to start an institution (say, a college), offer people the opportunity of joining or attending that institution, and enforcing whatever rules (within reason) they want. This would include providing whatever insurance plan they want. People who didn’t like the rules or the options could simply not attend that institution. So I would think complaints from outsiders about religious freedom would not apply, since they chose to be a part of the institution.

    However, you can’t do whatever you want when you’re receiving public funds. You mention this only parenthetically, but this to me seems to be what is wrong and illegal with what the bishops demanding. I don’t see how this shouldn’t be the main point of complaint.


  2. I agree with you that this issue is most clear in the case of religion-affiliated institutions that receive public dollars. (However, in Florida, a constitutional amendment would guarantee religious orgs the right to get any public dollars offered to other kinds of orgs and to be exempt from civil rights laws.)

    The big challenge here is that you can’t really protect human rights and civil rights without imposing rules on private organizations as well as public organizations. Consider the 1960’s south. Would it have worked to say that clubs and restaurants and grocery stores could exclude blacks but buses and schools couldn’t?

    New technologies bring new powers, and power brings with it rights and responsibilities. Given the current state of technology, I believe that control over fertility, the ability to decide if and when to bring children into this world and how many, is a basic human right. For women, it is also a basic health issue. Women can’t have equality in education or economics or any other sphere of culture unless they have control over their fertility. In much of the world, unwanted fertility carries the threat of lifetime disability or even death. In Afghanistan, for example, a woman has a one-in-seven chance of death from pregnancy.


    • Jonathan says:

      I’ll say right up front that I’m not a Catholic but I stand with the Catholics on this issue. Since liberals and other like-minded people are so big on Separation of Church and State then I think one could argue that what the Obama administration has done (and it’s recent move which is nothing more than a semantic shell game) is a violation of the Separation of Church and State from the State end. The State is forbidden by the First Amendment Establishment clause to not interfere with religion or the free exercise thereof. So requiring Catholic (or Jewish or Evangelical for that matter) institutions to provide contraception or abortion inducing drugs like the morning after pill is a violation of that separation. If people who work or attend these institutions object to their organizations stand on the matter they have a number of options: work or attend (in the matter of an educational institution) somewhere else or purchase such services out of their own pocket. Since 99 percent of employers in the private sector already provide contraception services in their insurance plans this move by the administration had but one objective – attack religious institutions freedom to follow the dictates of their conscience. If the government can do this to the Catholics then they can dictate to any other employer, organization or individual and force them to violate their principles and conscience in other matters. Personally I’m not against contraception (it’s far better than abortions) but I would oppose the government interfering in telling a religious institution or related institution to violate their own beliefs.


      • Hi Jonathan –
        To clarify a common misconception, the morning after pill is not an abortifacient. It suppresses ovulation. Here is a quote from the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals: Treatment with levonorgestrel-only ECPs as soon as possible after unprotected sex has been shown to impair the ovulatory process and luteal function. Levonorgestrel-only ECPs can inhibit ovulation but do not always do so even when given before ovulation.11-16 Inhibiting ovulation may be the only mechanism of action for levonorgestrel-only ECPs. Recent studies have found no effect on the endometrium.16-18 In one study, levonorgestrel 1.5 mg had no effect on the quality of cervical mucus or on the penetration of spermatozoa in the uterine cavity.17

        Animal studies demonstrated that levonorgestrel administered in doses that inhibited ovulation had no postfertilization effect that impaired fertility.10,19,20 Whether these results can be extrapolated to humans is unknown. Based on those animal studies and their own studies in women, Novikova et al.21 argued that most, if not all, of the contraceptive effect of both combined and progestin-only ECPs can be explained by inhibited or dysfunctional ovulation. This question of postfertilization effect may never be answered unequivocally because no test exists for fertilization; however, the best available evidence indicates that levonorgestrel does not interfere with any postfertilization events.22

        Regarding your concerns about the role of government obligating organizations to violate their own principles — my own thought is that freedom of religion never has included a blanket right to do harm in the name of God. If, for example, Catholicism still demanded the burning of witches or the torture of suspected dissidents, the law of this land would trump religious freedom. In fact, some people would argue that the only reason Christianity does not still engage in such practices is because the evolution of secular consciousness and law (based in Enlightnment philosophies) have made the Church’s old means of forcing conformity untenable. Regardless, the point is that ecclesiastical law and civic law are in dynamic tension with each other, and in a secular state the collective agreements of the populus, encoded in statute, trump dogma when it comes to moral questions that pit institutional rights against individual rights.

        Coming back to health care, here is how I think about it. The moral obligations of society change in accordance with what we are capable of. We aren’t morally obligated to set the broken bones of children, for example, until we have the ability to do so. Once we have the knowledge and capacity, then a moral responsibility to minimize suffering of sentient beings comes into play–to make available the orthopedic doc, the analgesic, and the cast. I would argue that the same is true of preventive health care, including contraception and that at this point maximizing access to contraception is a moral obligation. We have very good data about the suffering on the other side of the equation. In the case of unwanted pregnancy that aggregate cost can be counted in health terms, child mental health (my background), food sufficience, poverty alleviation, war risk, and many other areas.

        Our collective ability to minimize suffering as we are able activates a moral responsibility to do so. This responsibility bumps up against another moral responsibility, to respect the autonomy of other beings. In other words, the growth of technology creates a moral dilemma where none previously existed (when contraception didn’t exist.)

        As a society we have to decide how to balance these obligations against each other. Religion denies the delimma. It likewise denies any evolution of moral consciousness, insisting on a final and complete, perfect, static revelation interpreted through a perfect, static text and ensconced authority structures. As new moral opportunities and dilemmas arise, it seeks to assimilate them within it’s existing belief structure and to control human behavior in accordance with that belief structure. Society has to decide the extent to which it will accommodate these demands, which may be increasingly at odds with the broader moral consciousness. Muslim demands for sharia and for blasphemy laws provides another interesting example of this.


    • Tim Martin says:

      Hmm… good points! Thanks for the response. I’ll continue to think about this.


  3. James J. DeFrancisco, PhD says:

    I highly respect your position and your posts and you make several excellent points on this issue. There is a key point that is being overlooked and that is the issue of organizational sponsorship. The organizations are sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church which has, as you know, it’s values and canon law. The bishops are within their rights and are obligated by their beliefs not to support activities that are contrary to the values and beliefs of the RCC. I am a non Catholic who has held numerous consulting, management, and administrator positions within the Catholic and secular healthcare system for over 25 years. There are many issues at stake within healthcare (including the not for profit status of many institutions – religious and secular – that act no differently than their for profit competitors). Since this is a vitally important issue I hope – and pray – that a balanced approach will be taken in the discussion.
    Thank you.


  4. Tim Miller says:

    Great post. Like all your stuff, very thought provoking. I think this particular issue is tangled and it’s hard to find one’s way through the thicket. In the best of all worlds, which would be one in which the US had a health care system like Canada’s and hence businesses and organizations did not provide employees with health insurance but instead the government provided everyone with coverage, the issue would not arise. And Bishops and their ilk interested in controlling others through moral brow-beating would have one less opportunity to do it. But alas, we live in the real world. I think Obama’s solution is a good one, given the constraints. Not to mention that the whole thing played out pretty well for him politically. He again looks like the responsible adult in the room while the Bishops and conservatives in general make arguments that the vast majority of young people and women disagree with. Re-election chances for Obama next November just inched up a notch, methinks.


    • anouk says:

      I’m sorry, are you suggesting that Canada is not in ‘the real world’? Seemed pretty real to me when I lived there, and their healthcare is amazing. Proof that it can happen. And yes, there are many different religions, as well as Catholics, in that country too, but somehow they seem to be getting along a lot better with womens’ healthcare – makes one wonder at the difference between them and the ‘real world’.


  5. Tom Rafferty says:

    Valerie, This is an excellent analysis of the issue. Thanks for your continued support of rationality.


  6. Love your writing Valerie. There is another point that I would like you and your readers to consider, and that is the care that women get in Catholic hospitals.

    Unlike men, women’s health is second to the health of their reproductive systems and their pregnancy. When it comes to women’s health Catholic hospitals practice theology rather than best medical science.

    It boils down to a simple statement: zygotes trump a woman’s health concerns. When these so-called pro-life people have very little regard for the life of a woman. A woman is regarded as a reproductive machine rather than a real person.


    • Thanks, Wayne. I wonder sometimes if they have finally overstepped by taking up the question of personhood, whether they are off balance and have opened up a conversation that we could win. Personhood has some very specific attributes — namely sentience, a mind– that a zygote or embryo or early fetus doesn’t have. I think it might be worth stirring public conversation about this.


  7. Lewis Keizer says:

    The unholy alliance between ignorant Catholic and Christian fundamentalist dogma began in the 1970’s, when Catholics began characterizing abortion as murder in weekly Sunday School and adult education church programs. Their dogma was promot…ed with gory films showing human second-third trimester abortions done in China, claiming it was standard medical practice in the US–which it was not. The issue of abortion had been correctly settled by a much better US Supreme Court than our current one in its Roe vs. Wade decision, which was based on extensive medical, biological, and classic philosophical data that revealed the human embryo and fetus to follow Freud’s observation that “ontology (the womb development of an individual) recapitulates (passes through all the stages of) phylogeny (the evolutionary stages preceding the emergence of the modern organism). In other words, human embryos do not develop the physical and neurological evolution of a true human being until roughly the end of the first trimester. Before that, if their evolution is arrested, as it was done mistakenly decades ago when pregnant women took the drug thalidomide, full term babies would be born with flippers instead of arms. Before full development of an embryo into a human fetus, the post-reptilian brain centers are yet undeveloped, even though the heart beats from a very early stage. In other words, an embryo or fetus (after 8 weeks) is not yet human. The non-biological Catholic dogma that a fertilized egg is a human being and should have all the rights of a human being equal to those of its mother, upon which it is biologically parasitic, is ridiculous. Why did the Catholics push the anti-abortion and anti-birth control movements? Why does the Catholic Church persist in opposing sound medical and birth control practice that can raise its followers out of poverty by decreasing the size of families to a number that can be supported, properly cared for, and educated? Why does it support all the evils of human over-population? Because it is more concerned with increasing the worldwide numbers of its laity and their financial support than the life-quality and welfare of its people. The so-called “saint” Mother Teresa made this quite clear when asked why she worked among outcast pregnant Indian girls. Her motivation was not compassion, but to promote the “true” religion. It has been observed that she did not provide much in the way of medical help and education (as opposed to catechism) for her girls, but she did provide elaborate and beautiful funerals for them! In the 1980’s, the fundamentalist strategists saw how well the Catholic “moral” agenda was playing politically, and leaders of the Moral Majority decided they should join the anti-abortion bandwagon. So they did the standard Republican practice of re-naming it to something that sounded positive–the “Pro-Life Movement!” Not pro-life at all, but anti-life quality for the human future. Soon the anti-abortion rhetoric equating first-trimester medical abortion with murder gave the psychopaths among them a rationale to murder abortion doctors and bomb abortion clinics. So now the Republicans have decided to enhance their “moral stand” by writing not only Catholic anti-abortion dogma, but anti-birth control dogma, into the federal laws of the U.S.! We call it Culture Wars, but it is actually the attempts of the spiritually immature (Old Humanity) to destroy the good works of the spiritually mature (New Humanity). Ultimately, it will go the way of the dinosaurs. But if America elects a Republican President and Congress in 2012, it will set human freedom and justice back for many more years.


  8. Sam Wise Gingy says:

    The woman decides what birth control method is appropriate and moral for her. Not the state, not the insurance company, and not her employer, even if her employer is religious institution. Is that so difficult to understand?


    • Jonathan says:

      The true issue here is NOT birth control but religious freedom. The Federal government is blantantly violating the Separation of Church and State that liberals always trumpet when the supposed violation is on the Church side but apparently they are willing to ignore it when it’s convenient to the advancement of their agenda. A woman who goes to work for a Catholic affiliated organization knows exactly what that organization’s stance is and if she wants birth control covered by her insurance plan then she either pays for it herself out of her salary or she goes work somewhere else. It’s not rocket science but simple common sense. For the government to impose this burden on the Catholic church (although I’m not a Catholic) is violating the free exercise of religion of that organization that the Constitution clearly says SHALL NOT BE INFRINGED. The government must be stopped and be told clearly “this far and no further” because if they can impose this on Catholics now..what next will the government dictate to other groups.


      • Actually having a full range of reproductive health paid for out of a woman’s insurance is a way of paying for it out of her salary. Benefits are earned by employees. They belong to the employees. In the case of insurance, the employer simply bundles the employees earning, a somewhat bizarre and archaic system if you ask me. Should a religiously affiliated employer be able to dictate how an employee spends his or her own earnings? I might also suggest that the government has always, will always and should infringe the rights of organizations including religious organizations where those organizations seek either engage in criminal behavior or to infringe the rights of individuals. If buggering small boys was a mandate of the Catholic religion, for example, rather than simply a habit pattern, the government would and should interfere.


      • The so-called Catholic Hospitals are supported by government and community funding. They are managed mostly by the Catholic Health Association which has wholeheartedly endorsed Obamacare. A bunch of old bishops, many of whom have supported pedophile priests and still are, are trying to tell us what our morals should be? Insane!


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