Friday, September 11, 2015

Moral Grounds Found Sufficient to Deny Employees Contraception Coverage: Is Morality Distinct from Religion?

In addition to religious organizations and their respective affiliates being excluded from having to include contraceptives in employee health-insurance, non-religious groups with a salient moral stance against the use of the devices are also exempt—this according to a federal judge in the United State. The moral stance need not be associated with any religion. By implication, moral principles are distinct from religious doctrines. Even though religions incorporate moral principles, the latter are based in another domain. I contend that the interlarding of the non-native fauna can dilute and even compromise a given religion, thus undercutting its viability.

On August 31, 2015, Judge Richard Leon of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that employers do not have to provide medical-insurance coverage for contraceptives even though their objection is moral rather than religious. More subtle than the expanded accommodation is the decision’s demarcation of religion. By implication, religion may be overstepping when it claims the moral domain.

In the case, March for Life, “a nonprofit, nonreligious pro-life organization,” sued the government, “arguing that the government had violated equal protection principles by treating [March for Life] differently from ‘similarly situated employers.”[1] At the time, the Affordable Care Act required most employers to provide free contraception coverage—with exceptions for religious groups. March for Life would not qualify as a non-religious organization; hence the suit.

In the ruling, Leon writes, “The characteristic that warrants protection—an employment relationship based in part on a shared objection to abortifacants—is altogether separate from theism. Stated differently, what [the government] claims to be protecting is religious beliefs, when it actually is protecting a moral philosophy about the sanctity of life.”[2] In other words, an employer-organization need not be religious (e.g., theist) to have a legitimate basis to object to contraceptives.  Furthermore, the basis in moral philosophy is really what the government was actually protecting by the accommodation. By implication, religious organizations had gone too far in claiming that their basis in opposing contraception is religious in nature; the opposition to the use of contraceptives is a moral claim, which some theists had adopted. To claim the issue as religious in nature—foundationally—involves a failure to circumscribe religious issues to those that are based on a religious basis.

To be sure, the Roman Catholic doctrine of humanae vita has a theistic component in that preventing a human life means obstructing a soul made in God’s image. Hence the doctrine is referred to as the sanctity of life. Yet to say human life is sacred risks self-idolatry. In other words, if our lives are sacred, then by implication we should worship them—our own and those of other people. With such reasoning, moreover, religion as a domain could expand to take over practically all others. To be anti-war, for example, can be reckoned as being based on the sanctity of life. Such a trajectory leaves religion itself vulnerable to transgressing on the “sovereignty” of other domains.

A controversial issue that is really moral in nature is easy prey particularly for religions that have a salient moral component. Jainism, for instance, emphasizes the moral principle of non-violence. Jain monks go as far as sweeping in front of them so as not to step on gnats. The principle involved is moral in nature—the religion having incorporated it. Put another way, a person need not be a Jain (or even religious) to value non-violence. Just because the principle is associated with several religions does not mean that it is religious in nature. Treating such a principle as religious increases the difficulty in discerning what aspects of a religion are fundamentally and distinctively religious. By analogy, a person who spends more time at neighbors telling them how they should care for their gardens and lawns risks neglecting his or her own. Such a person might even have difficulty mentally distinguishing his or her own property from those of nearby neighbors. A religion too may have such entitlement to that which is not innately religious.

As another example, the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) incorporate moral principles in the Ten Commandments, which Moses delivers to the Hebrews before they entered their land promised by their god. In this case, moral principles are woven into the very fabric of the religions, yet this does not mean that the principles are religious in nature.

Making explicit the civic function of the Ten Commandments, here they are on the grounds of the Texas capitol. 

The moral principles against lying, adultery, and murder do not depend on being ensconced in a religion. The Ten Commandments served not only a religious purpose for the Hebrews, but also a civic one as well. In a theocracy, even laws oriented to maintaining order in a society are presumed to come from a divine source. This doesn’t mean that civic laws are in themselves religious in nature. Rather, such a religion extends to incorporate another domain—like the presumptuous homeowner who feels free to treat his or her neighbor’s land as if it were his or her own.

Incorporating moral or civic “land” into a religion has a serious downside in religious terms in that religionists may be tempted to devote more attention to those areas (presumed to be intrinsically religious) than to religious experience (e.g., worship) itself. Moreover, the phenomenon of religion becomes diluted. Not only can religious people have trouble identifying what is distinctly religious—that is, on religion’s native turf—the religion itself can become bloated and even compromised as it expands beyond its own domain. 

Grabbing for everything—as if a religion were not valid unless it is universal—can undermine the integrity, not to mention cohesiveness, of the religion itself. Spending a lot of time telling neighbors how to clean up their property can result in overgrown grass and parched gardens at home. Religion would be much purer, with more attention devoted to discerning its core religiousity and being “in” it, were religious leaders and clergy motivated to stick to religion’s native fauna rather than engage in empire-building. The desire to assume other domains may be from confusion about the phenomenon of religion or simply a lack of interest in it. Indeed, the habit of obfuscating the core of religiosity and other stuff—exogenous appurtenances (try these words at dinner with friends!)—can dilute a person’s interest in a religion because its native strength is being sapped or diluted.

[1] Adam Liptak, “Judge Grants Moral Basis to Exempt Birth Control,” The New York Times, September 1, 2015.
[2] Ibid.