A few weeks ago, Rick Santorum got some criticism for saying the Supreme Court erred in saying states may not outlaw contraception. The idea that Americans could legally be forbidden to buy condoms or birth-control pills struck most people as a gross violation of personal liberty.
They are right, of course. But many of those who think it's wrong to forbid Americans to buy contraceptives think it's just fine to require them to buy contraceptives. In this group, unfortunately, are President Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who are hell-bent on enforcing that mandate on nearly everyone.
Under the Obama health care plan, employers that provide health insurance to employees must purchase coverage for contraceptives and sterilization. Individuals who buy their own policies have to get the coverage even if they've taken a vow of celibacy.
For Catholic institutions, this is not trivial. The church regards artificial contraception as a violation of the natural order, insisting that "each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life."
The administration makes only miserly room for such views. Churches are effectively excused from the mandate, but other religious institutions -- such as hospitals, universities and charitable organizations -- are not.
A hospital may be named after a saint, founded by an order of nuns, replete with crucifixes and motivated by the teachings of Jesus, but too bad: It will be treated as the moral equivalent of Harrah's casinos or Bain Capital. Those in charge may regard birth control as inherently evil, but they will have to pay for it anyway.
This is particularly ungenerous considering that the administration has provided an exemption for another group. The Amish are excused from the individual mandate to get coverage because they have religious objections to insurance of any kind.
The administration wants to make sure that all women have access to contraception at no cost. But some will find it has the opposite effect.
Employers that furnish health insurance have to cover it. But employers don't have to furnish health insurance -- and some of those with a religious mission may decide not to. When the District of Columbia passed a law that forced Catholic Charities to provide medical insurance to the same-sex partners of its employees, the agency elected to simply drop coverage for spouses.
Anyone left without health insurance under the administration's rule can go to new state-run health insurance exchanges to buy individual policies. But here again, the administration rejects freedom of conscience. The only policies available will include coverage for contraceptives -- including those the church regards as "abortion drugs" -- and sterilization.
This overbearing approach is not essential to health care reform. Experience indicates that freedom can coexist with general access to contraception.
In the past, employers have generally been able to make their own decisions, and most cover it. According to the Guttmacher Institute, nine out of 10 company policies pay for prescription birth control. The federal employee plan allows insurers with religious scruples to sell policies that don't include such coverage -- which doesn't prevent anyone from getting policies that do.
This is an issue on which the Catholic Church is drastically at odds with prevailing opinion and practice. Its position has a way of bringing out latent anti-Catholic sentiment. Writing in the Huffington Post, June Carbone and Naomi Cahn sneer at "the male hierarchy's opposition to birth control." The issue, they insist, "is too important to be left in the hands of a small number of men in robes."
But religious freedom is too important to be left in the hands of people who see it as an obstacle to be pushed aside whenever it's inconvenient. Anytime it is feasible to let organizations and individuals follow the dictates of faith, it's essential that they be permitted to do so.
That's established policy in many areas. When the military relied on the draft, Quakers were allowed to opt out because of their pacifism. When a Seventh-Day Adventist was fired for refusing to work on her Sabbath, the Supreme Court said she was eligible for unemployment benefits. Prison officials have to accommodate the religious practices of inmates.
Why? Out of respect for religious freedom and diversity. Most Americans regard that tradition as a mark of civic health. In this case, the administration treats it as an illness to be cured.
Steve Chapman's column is distributed by Tribune Media Services.