Religious leaders from multiple faiths have united in an unprecedented show of strength against US president Barack Obama's healthcare plan to ensure all women have access to birth control.A number of years ago I heard a report about a small town in Australia that had the highest birthrate in Australia. The only pharmacist in the town had refused to stock and supply birth control on religious grounds.
Roman Catholic Bishop William Lori likened the situation, of the government forcing church-affiliated groups to provide insurance cover for birth control, to forcing a kosher deli to serve ham sandwiches.
"It is absurd for someone to come into a kosher deli and demand a ham sandwich, but it is beyond absurd for that private demand to be backed up with a coercive power of the state, and downright surreal to apply that coercive power when the government can get that same sandwich cheaply or even free just a few doors down," he said.
His place in the community was not just a matter of religious freedom, however. By deciding that he couldn't sell contraception on his religious grounds, he made that choice on behalf of everyone. After all, why should people need contraception? The pharmacist was Catholic!
And this is the problem with this analogy of religious freedom. Healthcare is not a religious service. Any individual is free to avoid using and buying birth control if they choose to on religious grounds, but being a healthcare provider while refusing to stock health supplies is pushing those religious grounds onto others that they may or may not want.
In short, if you want to be a health provider, then it's not a matter of religious choice. If religion cannot provide a public service in a manner that best serves the public, then they shouldn't be in that business. They as individuals are free to ignore any contraceptives that may be on offer, what they are losing here is the ability to deny that service to others.
Baptist leader Professor Ben Mitchell said his church members would be prepared to defend their religious freedom.What's at risk is the ability to easily push one's religious belief onto others. That's a very Orwellian take on religious freedom.
"Tens of thousands of us, maybe hundreds of thousands of us, would be very willing to spend nights in jail for the sake of the preservation of religious liberty," he said.
"It's not just our coffers that are at risk, it is our very freedom."