Where religion and government meet, confusion and strife are always possibilities. Law professor David Skeel sees a contradiction in the messages sent by two different branches of the federal government in recent days.
On the One Hand: In a decisive 9-0 ruling, the Supreme Court held that a teacher dismissed by a Lutheran school cannot challenge her dismissal under federal employment statutes. The church defines her as a minister, and that relationship is not bound by the rules that apply to regular employees. Upshot: Score one for “religious freedom.”
On the Other Hand: the executive branch, in the form of the Department of Health and Human Services, ruled that Catholic hospitals, just like other hospitals, will be subject to the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employer health care plans cover contraception. Upshot: “Religious freedom” loses.
But Professor Skeel doesn’t take into account one big difference between these cases. Employment is a purely socioeconomic matter, whereas contraception is medicine, and where medical matters are concerned, the principles of basic humanity (e.g. the right of a person to have control over her own body) have to trump out-of-the-mainstream religious beliefs.
The Supreme Court held as much in a 1996 case involving a diabetic boy who died after being “treated” only via prayer by Christian Scientist practitioners. The Court refused to entertain the caregivers’ appeal of a large monetary judgment won against them by the boy’s more rational father.
Where religion and government meet, we’re wise to prepare for fireworks. But we need to keep those dangerous sparks away from the vulnerable tissues of science and medicine.