Flames of the Torch: A Bitter Pill to Swallow

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On Monday, the University community received an email from University Ministry with the subject line, “St. John’s Rallies for Religious Freedom.” The email urged students to attend a rally on the Great Lawn on March 22, and offered us the opportunity to educate ourselves about the ways in which the Obama administration’s controversial women’s health mandate violates First Amendment rights.

As journalists, there are few things more important to us than the First Amendment. Those 45 little words represent our calling, our creed and our shield. The First Amendment is a guarantee of our most basic rights as Americans, and threats to those rights are unconscionable. But in truth, we fail to see the logic in this recent email.

We at the Torch would like to applaud the University Ministry for taking advantage of the right “peaceably to assemble.” However, we cannot understand how granting people the option of receiving medication (of any kind), covered by their health care plan, violates any of the rights afforded us in the First Amendment.

In fact, if “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” doesn’t that free our government from any obligation to respect the restrictions any religion places on anything at all? The First Amendment grants us the right to exercise our religions, not exercise our religions, exercise some parts of several religions, create our own religions or exercise no religion at all. What the First Amendment guarantees us is our right to choices and options as individuals, without the burden of a single religious restriction.

The mandate, which requires virtually all institutions, including the religiously affiliated, to cover contraceptives for employees, has been enduring backlash from religious leaders for months. The cornerstone of the controversy has been the idea that the mandate compromises religious freedoms by forcing church-affiliated institutions to provide a service that Catholic teaching regards as sinful.  The tug-of-war is ongoing because, in actuality, this argument has merit. It is easy to see how an institution may feel their First Amendment rights are being affected by a Congress in peril of “prohibiting the free exercise” of a religion and its restrictions. Yes, in this argument, a church-affiliated institution may just have a leg to stand on. An institution – not individuals.

The email we received from the University Ministry implied that as individuals, our First Amendment rights are being threatened – and that is simply not true. The government isn’t mandating that we use any medications made available to us by our insurance providers; they are simply ensuring that we have the option.

The email from the University Ministry advocated that the “mandate directly infringes on your 1st amendment right to freedom of religion!”

No, it doesn’t.

Mandate or no mandate, each of us retains the right to practice our religion in any way we see fit. Our religious freedoms are perfectly safe, because we aren’t being coerced in any direction – we’re just being afforded options, and the right to choose among them.

To put it simply, yes, Catholic doctrine does not support “sterilization, abortifacients and contraceptive medications.” Yes, this is a Catholic institution, and there is room for debate about whether the institution should have to provide medications they do not support. But there is nothing about the mandate that threatens our rights as individuals in any way, and it is foolish to suggest otherwise.

The email closes with the phrase, “Remember this is NOT about contraception.”

We fail to see how it’s about anything other than contraception, but whatever it’s about, it certainly isn’t about the First Amendment.