Assault on religious freedom seen in Michigan contraception mandate

by Catholic News Service

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LANSING, Mich. (CNS) -- Proposed legislation in Michigan that would require employers who provide prescription drug coverage to pay for contraception is "a direct assault upon the religious freedom rights" of Catholic and other religious employers, according to an official of the Michigan Catholic Conference.

Paul A. Long, the conference's vice president for public policy, testified May 14 before the state Senate Health Policy Committee about Senate Bills 41 and 42, which would mandate contraception coverage for employers providing prescription drug coverage to their employees.

Similar bills introduced during past legislative sessions also have not included exemptions for religious organizations that oppose the use of contraception.

"This legislation would impose a mandate upon Catholic religious institutions to provide contraceptive insurance coverage, coercing essential ministries of the Catholic Church under the color of law to act contrary to one of the church's most profound religious teachings on matters of morality and social justice," Long said.

"If this legislation were to pass, it is difficult to imagine any limit upon the state's ability to require religious institutions to violate the principal tenets of their religious beliefs," he added.

He dismissed the argument that religious organizations can simply avoid providing contraceptive coverage by not offering any prescription drug coverage to their employees.

"As a matter of justice, Catholic institutions consider it a religious duty to provide (prescription drug) coverage," Long said. "How is the health and welfare of employees better off if there is no prescription drug coverage?"

At a time when many have no prescription drug coverage or no health insurance at all, "one can fairly question whether the creation of such reverse incentives truly advances public health and the common good," he added.

Noting the Catholic conference has advocated in the past against legislation that conflicted with the traditions of other religions, Long said that "it would be a grave mistake for the Legislature to extinguish the freedom of church agencies to organize and operate internally in a manner consistent with their religious convictions."

But beyond the religious freedom question, the church also objects to "defining fertility as a disease that demands treatment," he said.

"Not only are we turning the religion clauses of the First Amendment on their head, we are now redefining the point and purpose for an employer-sponsored health benefit and prescription drug plan," Long said.

The Michigan Catholic Conference official also argued that the legislation would cause government interference in the employee-employer relationship because it would stipulate the content of benefit plans that are usually designed "based on the needs of their employees and the financial ability of the employer."

Long disputed the claim by proponents of the bills that contraception helps to reduce the number of abortions.

"According to Planned Parenthood's Alan Guttmacher Institute, more than half of women having abortion used contraception the month they became pregnant," he said. "So this argument proves to be without merit."

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