Contraceptives and a constitutional debacle

February 13, 2012 12:08 pm

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Conservatives and their libertarian kin have long contended that Barack Obama's vision for America is fundamentally different from the founders' ideal. With his policy on free birth control -- and even in his shell game of a reversal -- he has proven them right.

From the 2008 presidential campaign to the present, pundits have hammered Mr. Obama -- futilely -- for his infamous 2001 radio interview lamenting that the Constitution is merely a "charter of negative liberties" -- that it articulated what the government "can't do to you" but failed to assert what "government must do on your behalf."

Apparently one of the things government ought to do "on your behalf" is force your employer to provide you with contraception, sterilization and abortifacients. Left-wingers want the government out of your bedroom -- unless it's standing there with a handful of "free" pills.

Before Friday this new government function was deemed so important that it trumped the first Article in the Bill of Rights. Even in retreating somewhat from his mandate, Mr. Obama proclaimed free contraception a "core principle" -- though whether of his administration or of the Constitution, he didn't say. And the free exercise of religion is not?

Faith-based organizations rightly protested this assault on their constitutional rights. Though the Roman Catholic Church has been an important ally in the administration's launch of nationalized health care, the U.S. Conference of Bishops led the protest, citing the church's stance against birth control.

And on Friday the president revised his policy, sort of. Faith-based organizations now do not have to pay for insurance plans that provide free contraceptives; their insurance companies must cover the cost. This is window-dressing, of course: The cost will be passed back to the employers, and then to all of us.

But it doesn't wash. This revised policy still represents a completely backward understanding of the wellspring of our rights and the balance of power between the government and the governed.

Although the Bill of Rights -- the first 10 amendments to the Constitution -- were sent to the states for ratification in 1789, we've been working out how to practice these principles ever since. A watershed moment was the 1801 exchange of letters between Thomas Jefferson and a coalition of Baptist ministers from Connecticut, where the Congregationalist Church was supported by all citizens' state taxes.

The "Danbury Baptists" and other minorities, according to scholar Derek H. Davis of Baylor University, could seek an exemption certificate that would route their taxes to their own church, but in practice, many municipalities made that difficult to do, and in principle, the Baptists argued, it was wrong:

Ruth Ann Dailey:
First Published 2012-02-12 23:55:18

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