The Obama administration's announcement on Friday that it was changing the Obamacare mandate on contraceptive coverage was a step in the right direction, but it did not go nearly far enough.
On the one hand, the new rule improves on the old in that it applies to more employers than just a few monastic orders. It would exempt many nonprofit religious employers -- such as dioceses, charities and universities -- that have moral objections to the practice of sterilizing human beings and to the use of contraceptive and abortifacient drugs to frustrate one of the chief purposes of marriage, which they hold dear as a sacrament.
Even so, there are still legitimate doubts about whether the revised mandate exempts these institutions in a meaningful way, or whether it merely obscures in several layers of bureaucracy exactly who is paying for what.
And more importantly, even assuming that those doubts are unfounded, the new rule maintains the same misguided and un-American assumption as the old one -- that religion is primarily about churches and not about people. Even under the new rule, private citizens who own and run their own businesses can be forbidden by the federal government to operate them according to the tenets of their faith.
To be sure, an exemption for religious institutions is especially important, because it would be wrong for the Obama administration to require religious employers by law to behave hypocritically -- telling their flocks one thing while doing the opposite. But those who accept and live by these teachings in the secular sphere have rights too -- rights enumerated in our Constitution's First Amendment and bolstered by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which requires a broad interpretation of such rights by governments.
It would be a mistake for conservatives to frame this issue in terms of cost -- and in fact, the minimal costs involved in purchasing and covering contraception only highlight just how unnecessary the Obama administration's requirement is. The chief effect of this rule is simply to harass people who for religious reasons refuse to cooperate in what Pope John Paul II called "the culture of death" -- a society in which adult convenience and sexual satisfaction take precedence over a proper understanding of the human family and the purposes of the sacrament of marriage.
One need not accept or even like this understanding, or the moral teachings it has inspired, to respect the religious freedom of those who embrace it and live by it. Unfortunately, the Obama administration's new rule evinces a continued disrespect for the devout. President Obama would have the law discriminate against them permanently in the field of employment.
Moreover, assuming that all other aspects of Obamacare function well and that exchanges and subsidies create a genuinely affordable insurance market for most American workers (a very generous assumption), this requirement's chief effect will be to force some employers who are currently happy paying for their workers' health coverage to stop doing so, forcing taxpayers to pick up the tab instead.
It remains remarkable that the Obama administration ever thought it appropriate to create a religious exemption so narrow and meaningless that even Catholic Charities, the Catholic University of America and the Archdiocese of Washington would not have qualified.
Obama has shown and continues to show the same tin ear toward the hopes and aspirations of people of faith that once motivated him to describe them, at a closed-door fundraiser during his first presidential campaign, as dejected and hate-filled people who cling bitterly to their beliefs as the world leaves them behind. None of this speaks well of the sincerity of a president who once wrote movingly about his own conversion to Christianity.