Obama “Accommodates” First Amendment, Sort Of

After provoking a backlash last week with a tyrannical order that religious organizations pay for contraceptive care they find morally abhorrent, the Obama Administration today announced a new  “accommodation” with the free exercise of religion. Instead of compelling religious organizations to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees, the Administration will simply force insurance companies to provide contraceptive care to employees of these institutions for free.

This compromise is, of course, nothing but an accounting gimmick. As any student can learn in an Econ 1 class, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and that applies to health insurance as much as anywhere else. If insurance companies are compelled to provide contraceptives for “free,” they will simply shift those costs over to the services they still charge for. Objecting religious organizations, then, are absolutely still paying for contraception, only now there is an extra layer of bureaucratic obfuscation. As an open letter from Princeton professor Robert George and other academics makes clear, we should not be fooled.

Several other problems abound. Despite the pullback, the Administration has not surrendered its claim to be able to compel religious organizations to provide coverage, so the right is secure only as long as the Administration is feeling generous (which may be no longer than through next November). It is also unclear whether self-insuring religious organizations or religious insurance companies will be exempt from this new mandate. The threat to religious liberty is still very much alive, and while the First Amendment ought to be enough to stop it, the US Council of Catholic Bishops is in the right to demand that liberty be guaranteed legislatively as well by passing the recently introduced Respect for Rights of Conscience Act.

On top of worries about religious liberty, there are also concerns underlying the demand that insurers provide contraceptive coverage for free, which has been described as “unprecedented” by Aetna, the nation’s third-largest health insurance provider.  The Administration argues that providing contraceptive care in the long run saves insurers money, which begs the question of why every insurance company doesn’t already offer contraception for free. A risky and authoritarian game is being played when the government is instructing an entire industry on how it should operate, and doubly so when the intervention is intimately bound up with politics as this one is. If the government can mandate contraceptive coverage as a money-saver, it is just as possible that they could mandate abortion coverage for the same reason. In fact, just about any kind of private sector intervention could be justified, provided a government employee can trump up an argument that the intervention will be financially beneficial. Further criticism must wait until the new policy is described more clearly, but if the controversy of the last two weeks is any indication, those concerned about the cause of freedom should be wary.

–Blake Neff