Religious liberty got a little stronger today. So did the health of women and their families.
The Obama administration issued a decision today that requires most employers to provide no-cost contraceptive coverage as part of the Affordable Care Act. The decision provides a conscience exemption for houses of worship and certain nonprofits that employ and serve people of the same faith. But it does not exempt the many religiously affiliated institutions that employ people of diverse faiths—as well as those of no religion—for whom family planning is a key aspect of moral responsibility.
While the decision is welcome, it is also controversial. Some religious leaders have been vehemently opposed to today’s decision, claiming it violates their religious liberty. Some have even gone so far as to claim that the Obama administration is waging an all-out war on religious liberty.
That is not true. But it is true that the issue of religious liberty is highly contested—and not only in this realm. As our nation becomes more pluralistic and welcomes those with different faiths; as we sharpen our understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity; and as we see issues of conscience play out on both sides of the reproductive rights debate, we struggle to discern where religious liberty is under assault and where it is growing in strength and understanding.
Allowing women to make decisions based on their conscience when it comes to key matters of family and health is an example of religious liberty at its best. Providing a reasonable conscience exemption for certain religious institutions is another shining example.
This decision does not pit religious belief against secular society, or even Catholics against other religions. Facts show that the vast majority of religious women use contraception, including 98 percent of Catholic women. Given these numbers, one could claim that the Catholic Church—as defined by those in the pews—supports today’s decision.
Here are two more key facts: A sure way to reduce the need for abortion is to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies by making contraception accessible and affordable. In addition, a good way to promote healthy pregnancies, healthy babies, and strong families is to use contraception to plan families and ensure healthy intervals between children.
Today the Obama administration did the right thing. Those who care about women’s health, the health of families, and religious liberty can be grateful.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at American Progress.