Conscientious objectors? Birth control, marriage, and Catholic agencies

Conscience clauses look to be the next legal battleground for the Catholic church in its quarrel with federal and state governments over such issues as same-gender marriage or legal unions, with mandatory coverage of birth control under the federal health care reform law joining the already contentious debate.

On the first, the ACLU has now intervened in a lawsuit brought by three Illinois diocesan Catholic Charities agencies against the state DCFS, which is trying to enforce Illinois new civil unions law. Catholic Charities wants to refer couples in civil unions (open to both same-gender and mixed-gender couples) to other agencies for foster care and adoption, a practice that the state argues violates the new civil unions law, which specifies that parties of civil unions must have the same legal protections–in this case from discrimination–as married couples.

Commonweal's current editorial on this matter sounds a warning against state coercion on this matter in relation to New York State's recent extension of marriage to same-gender couples: "Without the sort of legal protections contained in New York’s 'Marriage Equality' law, there is little doubt that the coercive powers of the state will be brought to bear against religious groups. The authority of the state has already been exercised in numerous instances. When the Salvation Army, citing religious conviction, declined to provide benefits to its employees’ same-sex partners, the City of San Francisco withdrew $3.5 million in social-services contracts."

On the birth control front, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston-Galveston is criricizing a proposed rule that requires all methods of FDA-approved contraception be covered without copays in health plans: The exemption for religious institutions is limited to organizations whose primary purpose is the inculcation of religious values that employ primarily members of its own religious group, so while a parish or diocese would probably qualify, a Catholic hospital or social services agency probably would not. DiNardo argued that "our institutions would be free to act in accord with Catholic teaching on life and procreation only if they were to stop hiring and serving non-Catholics," according to Catholic News Service.

This is a tough nut to crack: I think Catholic Charities is on shaky ground, for example, because it accepts millions from the state in social service contracts; the one who pays the piper calls the tune. If Catholic Charities wants to stay in the adoption and foster care business, it will have to forego public funds.

The birth control question is more of a pickle: I think the church has a legitimate argument that it shouldn't have to offer services that violate the church's moral teaching as part of a benefits package at a church-run institution. (Most Catholic hospitals, however, are owned and operated by religious orders, not dioceses. I would be willing to bet that many Catholic hospitals' benefits packages include at least birth control as part of the benefit.) At the same time, making the exemption too broad would probably undermine the public policy goal of making sure women have this access.

Complicating this situation further is the relative lack of conciliatory voices that would seek a win-win situation. it is becoming clearer and clearer–see the debt-ceiling debate–that our political culture (of which the church is a part and an actor) is now being dominated by a winner-take-all approach to any dispute. What we need are creative voices that can chart a course through all these competing values. Any ideas?

Related: Cardinal criticizes contraceptive mandate

Belleville diocese joins lawsuit against Illinois over foster care

Blog: Catholic Charities, IL DCFS at loggerheads on adoptions

About the author

Bryan Cones

Bryan Cones is a writer living in Chicago.