- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 5, 2000

D.C. Council, contraceptives and the Catholic Church

The sanctity of conscience has been debated for centuries, and according to James Madison, "Conscience is the most sacred of all property" (National Gazette, 1792). This sanctity of conscience was violated when the D.C. Council rejected my amendment to the Health Insurance for Contraceptives Act of 2000, which would have added a conscience clause. It was rejected as if it had no value, and the council also rejected another, similar amendment.

There is no easy answer. The fundamental issue at risk is religious freedom. It is not a Catholic issue, it is a religious issue. The bill would have mandated insurance coverage for contraceptives. This issue has created friction between Congress and the District and between the Archdiocese of Washington and the D.C. Council.

My own conscience has not been at rest since the council vote. I initially attempted to include a conscience clause, and when shot down by my fellow council members, I went along with the council but voted present and then succumbed to a yes vote. But I cannot let this issue rest.

Contraception violates the teachings of various religious organizations. The measure would force an organization to pay for coverage that is contrary to its beliefs.

In 1779, Thomas Jefferson wrote that "to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical." The First Amendment to the Constitution states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

The issue of religious liberty is one we as a country have fought for long and hard, as demonstrated by the passage of the First Amendment. It is part of the foundation upon which this great nation was built and should be respected and cherished in the District.

Why then did the D.C. Council force this issue? Some might argue that federal law exempts self-insurers such as the Catholic Church. However, other organizations are not exempt and thus would be forced to adhere to policies that are directly opposed to their religious beliefs.

Was it religious intolerance? Insensitivity?

To ensure religious liberty as guaranteed by the Constitution, the council should include a conscience clause that exempts from the act religious organizations whose opposition to contraception is fundamental to their beliefs.

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams vetoed the legislation, exercising this right through the use of a "pocket veto." I have been assured, however, that it will be reintroduced in the D.C. Council within the next few weeks. This time, the D.C. Council should re-enact the legislation with a conscience clause and thereby re-establish its respect for and commitment to religious liberty.

HAROLD BRAZIL

At-large member

D.C. Council

Washington

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A letter from the Catholic League claims that Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC) is "anti-Catholic" ("D.C. Council, contraceptives and the Catholic Church," Aug. 2).

Therefore, a CFFC report that proves that insurance coverage for contraceptives is provided by many Catholic health plans across the country should not be cited or trusted in the current policy debate regarding such coverage in the District. The Catholic League's claims shed little light on an important policy issue but aim instead to generate heat and hatred. (A follow-up letter yesterday from the Archdiocese of Washington's Communications Office claims that the study is "flawed." In fact, the study has not yet been published and has not been seen by the archdiocese. How other than clairvoyance one asks, does the archdiocese know it is flawed?)

The Catholic League cites no evidence to refute CFFC's research findings. Catholic health plans across the country are covering contraception. D.C. Council member Jim Graham is right to ask why it is not possible for Catholic institutions in the District to do the same and cover employees Catholic and non-Catholic for contraceptive services their individual consciences tell them are moral.

The Catholic bishops of Washington have failed to answer this simple question. Why? Clearly it is because there is no answer that supports their claim that Catholic teaching requires them to deny coverage for contraception. What will be next? Does Catholic teaching also require denial of coverage for the delivery of babies to single women because sex outside of marriage is forbidden by the church?

The time has come for the public to demand that questions such as these be answered. It also is time to reject the increasingly tired canard that those who disagree with church officials are anti-Catholic. Nothing could be further from the truth. CFFC and those members of Congress and of the D.C. Council who have tried to find a way to respect the consciences of Catholic people who overwhelming support and use contraception are truly pro-Catholic. The Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church made it clear: The people of God are the church not the Vatican alone and not the Archdiocese of Washington.

FRANCES KISSLING

President

Catholics for a Free Choice

Washington

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I applaud the D.C. Council for its determination to require health insurers to pay for contraceptives. The majority of the representatives on the council recognize that women's reproductive rights must be respected and discriminatory barriers to health care must be removed if women are to achieve equality and to fulfill their potential. Important health care objectives must not be undermined by conscience clauses that permit health care providers to deny services based on religious or any other objections. Legislators have an obligation to ensure equal access to basic health services, including family planning and abortion, especially for those who do not have options to seek care elsewhere.

Proponents of conscience clauses incorrectly assert that these provisions are necessary to protect the religious freedom of health care providers. The provision of health care does not, however, implicate the religious freedom rights of providers. Unlike the right to obtain contraception or abortion, there is no constitutional right for a business with religious affiliations to operate free of state regulations.

As the United States Supreme Court recognized in United States vs. Lee, 455 U.S. 252, 259, 261 (1982): To maintain an organized society that guarantees religious freedom to a great variety of faiths requires that some religious practices yield to the common good… . When followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes which are binding on others in that activity.

The decision to provide services that include reproductive health care carries with it certain responsibilities that must not be excused based on religious objections. The free decision to enter into this field must include the recognition that there is a minimum standard of care that must be met. Conscience-clause provisions give religious health care providers an advantage over other entities and therefore give a preference based on religion, rather than on maintaining government neutrality. Such preferential treatment, which undermines the availability of services to those the programs were intended to benefit, is unconscionable.

MONICA HOBBS

Fellowship attorney

The Center for Reproductive Law and Policy

Washington

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The rhetoric emanating from the Archdiocese of Washington and its defenders regarding the right to withhold coverage for "artificial" birth control borders on the ludicrous.

What if a church taught that taking Viagra constitutes a grave sin by "artificially" prolonging a man's ability to engage in sex and, therefore, the church would not provide insurance coverage for this medication? Or suppose a church decided it is evil to permit a person to undergo a kidney or heart transplant because such procedures "artificially" prolong life?

How many people would be upset if public officials decided that forcing such a teaching upon the employees of church-affiliated institutions violated their right to decide for themselves whether common medical practices are either moral or immoral? And since when does disagreement constitute "anti-Catholic" bias?

Some would argue that employees are free to purchase the health care on their own, but for persons of limited means, the cost of purchasing birth control or other types of medications or procedures can be a substantial bar to obtaining medically appropriate care.

REA K. HOWARTH

Arlington

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While on the floor of the House, Rep. James P. Moran accused Catholic Church leaders of being hypocrites for railing against providing contraceptive coverage in their employee health plans. It seems I'm the only person to have read it and been concerned. There has been plenty of response to D.C. Council member Jim Graham's column backing the bill ("Cover birth control," Op-Ed, July 31), but I have seen no criticism of Mr. Moran's comments. Mr. Moran's attack on the Catholic Church has dangerous implications for religious freedom.

RALPH L. MUROS

Arlington

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The most important message continues to be lost: Prescription contraception is basic health care for women. So far, 13 states across the country have recognized this simple fact. Let's tone down the rhetoric of those who point to the issue of religious exemptions as a way to mask their fundamental opposition to contraception.

MARILYN KEEFE

Vice president for public policy

National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association

Washington

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