In the controversy over President Obama's mandate requiring that insurers provide birth control for free, opponents have sometimes been accused of opposing contraception. The main issue, however, is not contraceptive use, but religious freedom, according to Stephen V. Monsma.
Monsma has studied, as a political science professor, and practiced, as a Michigan state government representative, American government for over 40 years. Recently, as senior research fellow at The Paul B. Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich., and a fellow at the Center for Public Justice, Monsma has turned his attention to the study of faith-based organizations.
Monsma's newest book, Pluralism and Freedom: Faith-Based Organizations in a Democratic Society (2012), was written before the birth control mandate made headlines, but it speaks directly to the issue. The Christian Post spoke with him Wednesday about the religious freedom of faith-based groups and President Obama's birth control mandate.
The following are excerpts from the interview:
CP: What was the main point you wanted to get across with the book?
Monsma: The religious freedom rights of faith-based organizations are being threatened today because of certain underlying assumptions or mindsets that are widely held in American society. So, I thought it was both important to document that mindset, the problems it causes and to point in the direction of a new perspective which I think would lead to greater recognition of the religious freedom rights of faith-based organizations.
CP: What are some of those underlying assumptions?
Monsma: The crucial one is that religion is something that takes place in churches, synagogues, mosques, or in private activities, such as devotional reading or prayer, in the home. That leaves out a host of religiously based organizations that are involved in health care, education, other social services, which then are not seen as being truly religious organizations, and, therefore, they can be forced to engage in practices that go against their beliefs without really, supposedly, violating their religious consciences.
CP: What is your proposal for a new direction?
Monsma: I think the beginning point is to recognize that faith-based organizations engage in education, health care, social services are truly religious organizations by which individuals are living out their religious faith and therefore they are deserving of the protection based on religious freedom rights.
CP: When a faith-based organization accepts government funds to provide a public good, what sort of restrictions can, or should, be placed upon them?
Monsma: Certainly, restrictions should not include forcing that faith-based organization to hire persons who are not in religious agreement with them, which would virtually destroy that organization as a religiously-based organization. I would accept limits on using that government funding for proselytization or engaging in worship activities. But otherwise, if the organization is providing a public good, helping to solve problems in society, they should be able to continue to do so in the manner that has helped them to be successful in the past.
CP: Does your book address the question of whether it is wise for faith-based organizations to accept government funds?
Monsma: Only very briefly. I think it is a mistake to believe that if an organization accepts no government funds then their religious freedom rights will not be under threat. There are so-called non-discrimination laws, for example, which could still affect them when it comes to, for example, hiring persons who are in same-sex relationships. Not accepting government funds is not a complete answer.
CP: Could accepting government funds negatively impact the religious purpose of a faith-based organization?
Monsma: Each religious faith-based groups needs to decide this for themselves. In talking to faith-based groups, I always warn them not to become overly dependent on government funds. If they get 20, 30, maybe even 40 percent of their funding from government programs, I would be comfortable with that. But, if it starts getting more than that, the 50 percent plus range, then, I think, they are putting themselves in a dangerous position where the pressures from government to tone down or leave some of their faith-based teaching could become very strong.
CP: What do you think of President Obama's revised proposal on the birth control mandate in which he said that faith-based groups will not be required to pay for birth control coverage but insurance companies will have to provide it to their employees for free?
Monsma: I think it was a step in the right direction, but I don't think it goes nearly far enough. There's a couple of problems. One, the exact language of which faith-based organizations will not be included has yet to be worked out. The old saying is, "the devil is in the details," and until that language is worked out, we need to be a little skeptical whether it will go far enough.
My second problem is that, if the insurance companies need to provide contraceptive coverage "free of charge," the cost of that is likely to show up in the premiums they charge the faith-based groups. Thus, indirectly, one could argue, they are still being asked to subsidize coverage, which, for some faith-based organizations, goes directly against their religious beliefs.
CP: The Obama administration is arguing that premiums will not increase because birth control offered for free will reduce pregnancies and health care for a pregnant woman costs more than health care for a non-pregnant woman.
Monsma: They do make that claim, but if this were really the case you would think that all insurance companies would voluntarily offer contraceptive coverage in order to save money. So, I'm a bit skeptical whether it will really work out so simply and neatly in practice.
CP: You're also concerned about the language of the exemption because it excludes much of the work of faith-based organizations that serve public needs?
Monsma: Initially, that was the case. When the Obama administration offered its compromise, it said it was going to broaden that, and that's good. We should give them credit. They are recognizing that religion is not something that you practice for an hour Sunday morning.
Until one sees the exact language and the definition they come up with for faith-based organizations, I think we need to reserve judgment on whether this will go far enough.
CP: Is there anything else you would like to add about this topic?
Monsma: The issue is not whether you or I personally agree with the Catholic position on contraceptives. As a Protestant, I feel the issue is much more important and goes deeper than simply that. It's a matter of religious freedom rights and if the religious freedom rights of some religious traditions are violated, the religious freedom rights of all faith-based organizations would be put in danger.