One of the quirky things about Americans, especially those on the right of the political spectrum, is this: While we live in fear of government oppression, we accept the tyranny of our employers with a shrug.
When a Pennsylvania school district, mindful of the childhood obesity epidemic, suggested that it might be better for parents not to send cookies in school lunches, Sarah Palin was on hand to decry the war on cookies. But when employers begin punishing workers for being too fat, by contrast, the news is met with a shrug.
That's one reason there's so much to say about the Obama administration requiring church-affiliated employers -- like parochial schools or Catholic-run hospitals -- to offer employees health insurance that covers birth-control. The debate has put conservatives in an awkward position: telling you that in order for you to be free, you have to be bullied by your employer.
Take Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Ruth Ann Dailey, who wrote about the issue this week. Like many conservative critics, Dailey asserts that -- although the Obama policy exempted churches themselves -- applying the rules to parochial schools and other church-related workplaces is an "assault on their constitutional rights."
Nor is Dailey (or the Catholic bishops) appeased by the concession Obama made last week: While employee insurance must still cover birth control if workers want it, the church would be exempted from any need to advise them of the benefit. Insurers would have to notify clients directly. The church's only obligation would be to look the other way ... a skill which Catholic bishops have spent considerable time honing in recent years.
Dailey calls the policy shift mere "window dressing" since "the cost [of insurance] will be passed back to the employers." And that, it seems, infringes not just on their freedoms ... but your own:
Apparently one of the things government ought to do "on your behalf" is force your employer to provide you with contraception, sterilization and abortifacients. Left-wingers want the government out of your bedroom -- unless it's standing there with a handful of "free" pills.
This is the crux of the argument as Dailey, and many others, have formulated it. And it's based on a bit of sleight-of-hand. The first sentence is about the compulsion government is placing on your employer. In the second sentence, however, Dailey treats the policy as if it's a burden placed on everyone.
It's not, of course, and pretending otherwise makes absolutely no sense. I mean, OK, so jack-booted government thugs are kicking down our bedroom doors to ... um ... offer us an optional insurance benefit? The horrors! Next thing you know, the government will be seizing our retinas -- by requiring insurers to cover an eye exam each year!
At most, the jack-booted thugs are knocking on your boss' door, telling him that there are certain laws he must obey, regardless of his moral sentiments. And for all the Bible-waving, there's nothing new about that.
In 1982, for example, the US Supreme court ruled unanimously that an Amish farmer -- who felt Social Security taxes infringed on the community's sacred obligation to care for its own -- had to withhold the taxes anyway. "Granting an exemption from social security taxes to an employer operates to impose the employer's religious faith on the employees," wrote the majority opinion. And they saw this as a bad thing.
"Guarantee[ing] religious freedom to a great variety of faiths requires that some religious practices yield to the common good," the ruling added.
Even arch-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia has suggested religious freedom must sometimes yield to the law. This time, the Court upheld the applicability of anti-drug laws to a religious group that used peyote. As Scalia's opinion notes, there have been a whole slew of cases in which secular authority trumped religious scruple, in matters ranging from child-labor laws to military service.
That's just basic common sense, of course. Your boss may have a religious objection to paying a minimum wage, but that doesn't mean he can hide from the law because of what the Bible says. ("Jesus says I only have to pay a denarius a day, no matter how many hours someone works!")
No doubt there are people who think the government shouldn't be dictating such rules to anyone. After all, if we're willing to let employers punish our cholesterol intake, maybe we won't mind the boss setting limits on our sex lives too. Or at least choosing not to subsidize it. Maybe no employer should be required to provide benefits for birth control, or anything else.
But that's a separate argument -- about the obligations of employers to their workers. It's not an argument about religious freedom, because this isn't about freedom of speech. It's about the exercise of power, and how much of it your boss should have. And I see absolutely no reason to give more power to bishops than we do to Amish farmers or His Eminence Jeffrey Romoff.
Memo to the bishops: It's not society's fault you can no longer inspire obedience, but only seek to compel it. Participating in modern life means that sometimes, your money is used for stuff you don't believe in. And once you're off the church grounds, your moral delicacies are no more important than anyone else's. If you don't like it, stay on your church grounds, where the new rules won't apply. In fact, maybe you should pay more attention to the behavior of those who work directly for your church ... and a little less to that of the janitor cleaning hospital floors. We'd probably all be better off.