Ages ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and George F. Will was a reasonable, moderate, and relatively non-partisan conservative, Will profoundly wrote "rights inhere in individuals and do not derive in membership in government-favored minority groups."
Though the columnist then was arguing against an affirmative action provision, the concept ironically has prevailed- inadvertently- in a courageous decision recently made by Barack Obama, a president for whom Will has unconcealed contempt.
Under terms of the Affordable Care Act, all new government-mandated health insurance policies must include preventive services, including contraception, at no additional cost. In January, the Department of Health and Human Services chose to maintain the narrow religious exemption to organizations (as explained here) "whose primary purpose is to instill religious values and who employ and serve people with the same religious beliefs."
Roman Catholic hospitals and universities employ individuals of varying faiths, and so are not exempt. Nor should they be, notwithstanding howls of protests from its supporters and the Church's vow to "end this mandate."
The Church seemingly would like the federal government to impose upon its followers what its teachings have been unable to accomplish. Joan Walsh, herself Catholic, believes "we need to preach what we practice" and explains
Obviously, the law won’t force Catholics to use contraception. And 98 percent of Catholics already practice birth control (and not the “natural family planning” kind), according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute. It’s not as though Catholics are an endangered minority of true believers being forced to transgress a fervently held and widely practiced church rule. This battle is over a Catholic Church teaching that even Catholics ignore almost unanimously.
The Washington Post's Melinda Henneberger claims DHS has "effectively denied conscience protections to church-run schools, hospitals and social service agencies." She believes that church institutions must have a singular right- a conscience protection- to impose policies reflective of church dogma, even if contrary to the collective will of the American people as expressed in legislation. Katha Pollitt asks rhetorically, "Are Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other pacifists exempt from taxes that pay for war and weapons? Can Scientologists, who abhor psychiatry, deduct the costs of the National Institute of Mental Health?" The Roman Catholic Church maintains, Pollitt notes, "institutions that employ, teach and care for millions of people, for which it gets oceans of public money." To their benefit and ours, their consciences do not interfere with the pursuit of financial support from taxpayers of the myriad of faiths which make up the American mosaic.
Henneberger, further, wrongly implies that constitutional rights inhere in schools, hospitals, and agencies. But rights, as Will long ago observed, adhere only in individuals. Digby notes
We ostensibly believe in rights and liberties in America and have a set of rules in our constitution guaranteeing them. But lately, we've decided that these phony constructs of institutional rights and liberties --- "corporate personhood","conscience of the church" --- actually supercede individual rights and liberties. I don't mean to evoke the sacred founders here, but I'm afraid they would say that idea is, in their words, total bullshit. They knew very well that the government wasn't the only possible oppressor. 500 years of bloody European religious history had taught them that.
Zealous of protecting the rights of individuals and "the people," the framers neglected to include in the Bill of Rights advocacy of privileges of groups or corporations. Nor did they guarantee a right of any one church or even of religion generally, but instead the freedom of an individual to worship freely. Whatever the legal, political, or moral motivation of Administration officials, they got this one right.