If we are going to have a serious argument about civil liberties, specifically freedom of religion, I fail to see how anyone can argue that our first amendment rights are best left to interpretation by church oligarchs.
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I've come to appreciate Rick Santorum's candidacy as this year's sole remaining window into the unvarnished reactionary id. When Santorum opens his mouth, you don't hear slick rationalizations or even muddled, fuzzy logic. You get a stream-of-consciousness monologue that is unparalleled in its perceptual simplicity.

Take two back-to-back sentences Santorum delivered Friday on the subject of requiring employers --even those owned by religious organizations -- to provide health insurance that covers oral contraceptives. (I'm not sure if Santorum had been informed of Friday's compromise or not. I doubt it would have mattered if he had.) You can almost pinpoint the tree stump in Imaginationland upon which the man is currently sitting.

First, he insisted that, "You don't need insurance for these relatively small expenditures." In reality, the cost of oral contraceptives can add up pretty quickly. Low-cost birth control is what brings 76 percent of Planned Parenthood's five million clients to its clinics each year, and even that can be as high as $50/month. But, of course, no one expects a male, Republican former senator to know the cost of birth control.

More revealing was his estimation of the motives behind the plan. "This is simply," he said, "someone trying to impose their values on someone else, with the arm of the government." Yes, in Santorum's head, if an employer is not allowed to price its female employees out of contraception, its civil liberties are being violated.

I feel compelled to bring a few facts to the attention of Rick Santorum, the Vatican hierarchy and the conservative Evangelicals with whom they are politically aligned.

First and perhaps most importantly, oral contraceptives are not only prescribed for the purpose of preventing pregnancy, but for a variety of other medical reasons, as well. There are also a number of drugs that are no doubt covered by insurers that will have the side effect of causing infertility. So the moral objection to preventing pregnancy is shaky, at best.

More obviously, the employees of Catholic-owned facilities are not all Catholic and probably should not be assumed to hold "Catholic values." An attempt to price these people out of birth control is also then an attempt by the Catholic hierarchy to assign its values to female employees of the organizations it operates. This is wholly unacceptable and, as many who have examined the situation more closely than I have already determined, discriminatory.

And finally, even if all of these employees were Catholic, the above would still apply and the vast majority of Catholics in this country do not actually hold the "values" Santorum and crew seem to believe they should. Not counting "natural methods," 98 percent of Catholic women have used birth control. To put that in perspective, about 4 percent -- double the anti-birth control faction -- say they have "seriously considered" becoming a nun. As far back as 1965, large majorities of American Catholics have even believed their church would come to embrace the pill.

Today, 58 percent of American Catholics believe that, "employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception." In fact, Catholics are less likely than others to oppose the birth control requirement. The only group that is solidly opposed, in fact, is white Evangelical Protestants -- with 38 percent of even them agreeing that employers of all stripes should be held to the same standard when it comes to providing coverage that includes birth control.

Somebody is trying to impose their values onto someone else alright, but it isn't the government oppressing American Catholics. It is right-wing politicians, Protestants and Vatican oligarchs attempting to impose their values on Catholics and employees of Catholic-owned facilities. Rick Santorum is (as he is oft to do) projecting like a madman.

In fact, the very charge of any sort of attack on the Catholic Church is absurd on its face. Clergy of all faiths, including Catholicism, seem to have no problem lately violating the rules that allow them to enjoy tax exempt status, because they know that everyone in government is too afraid of the backlash to enforce them. And wasn't it the Catholic Church that just spent decades engaged in a massive obstruction of justice campaign for which there have been no serious indictments?

Luckily, the values of American Catholics are rarely in step with those of Rick Santorum or their church hierarchy. In 2004, the Boston archbishop threatened to deny communion to Democrat John Kerry over his stance on abortion. Exit polls showed Kerry winning 47 percent of the Catholic vote -- basically matching his performance among all voters. Al Gore and Barack Obama, both just as pro-choice as Kerry, easily carried the Catholic vote. If you're looking for the definitive swing voting bloc, Catholics might be a good place to start. Put simply: You can preach politics from the pulpit, but if you happen to be a Catholic, your congregation probably isn't taking any orders.

What's troubling is that the Vatican's disconnect goes beyond politics, and the church has a long history of choices that are at odds with the simple human decency of the people in the pews.

The church spent decades engaged in a coordinated effort to protect people who were physically and sexually abusing children from that "arm of government" that so troubles Rick Santorum. It then acted with lightning speed to excommunicate a nun for approving a life-saving first-trimester abortion. Even before this incident, the Vatican had already become so outraged by the liberal lifestyles of American nuns that it had launched an investigation into their behavior, without any allegations of wrongdoing whatsoever. If someone is trying to force values on the Catholic hierarchy, I can think of a few places they could start. (And American nuns can probably think of even more.)

Of the values of the average American Catholic on the street, I can thankfully say better. I have never met a Catholic who worked outside of politics or the church hierarchy who thinks that freewheelin' nuns are a more pressing problem than thousands of children being physically and sexually abused. I have never met a Catholic outside of politics or the church hierarchy who thinks that condoms shouldn't be used to prevent the spread of AIDS, because birth control is "intrinsically evil." We can only hope that they might one day be able to impose these values on more people in power.

Many of you reading this would no doubt argue that the core issue is not how wrongheaded or out-of-touch the Vatican/Evangelical/conservative axis' opposition to birth control is, but rather whether or not a religious organization in a free society can be required to pay for anything it (wrongly or not,) believes is immoral. I can see why people would at first glance view things this way. But if we are going to have a serious argument about civil liberties, specifically freedom of religion, I fail to see how anyone can argue that our first amendment rights are best left to interpretation by church oligarchs -- particularly when 98 percent of their flock disagrees. Allowing them to decide for their employees whether or not they can have access to affordable birth control is suppression of personal choice in a profoundly personal arena.

I also don't buy the "work somewhere else" argument. It sounds great, in theory. In practice, that cannot always be done, even in the best of times.

Both arguments also fail to view things in the broader context of where and when religious organizations have chosen to object to their duties as legal employer. Religious protests of this sort seem, lately, to only appear alongside opportunities to advance the political interests of social conservatives.

Take, for example, the Catholic hierarchy's handling of issues relating to marriage. The Catholic Church does not recognize any civil marriage. In fact, given the church's strict rules, it's a pretty safe bet that a great many married Americans who identify themselves as Catholics have never bothered to get married at all in the eyes of their church. Still, church-operated organizations regularly employ people joined in any variety of marriages it does not recognize, happily providing the same benefits that any legal and ethical employer would. So why, in 2009, did the Archdiocese of Washington threaten to stop feeding the homeless if DC allowed gay marriage? They had no problem giving the same benefits to the partners of other employees they officially viewed as living in sin. The church had simply decided that it wanted to prevent civil marriage, which they don't recognize anyway, from being awarded to gay couples. Add to this the fact that just 22 percent of actual Catholics oppose all legal recognition of same-sex relationships and we have a close enough parallel to the birth control situation.

I know, I know -- I keep citing the views of lay Catholics to illustrate how out-of-touch the church hierarchy is. Catholicism, many will point out, is not a democracy. It was once, and maybe it should be again, but it is not at this moment. But that is exactly my point, you see; the first amendment was not crafted to move choice out of the hands of individuals and into the hands of a few powerful, unelected people as Santorum, the Vatican and their far right Evangelical allies would have you believe. Freedom of religion means freedom to practice the religion of your choosing, not freedom for religious organizations to discriminate as employers of people in positions outside the religious operations of their church.

What Rick Santorum meant was that he objected to "the arm of government saying I can't impose my values on someone else." That prospect is what freaks men like Santorum out and that is why a compromise in which employees work directly with insurers is unlikely to placate many of them. It still robs them of the ability to make people submit to their will.

In fact, the more I think about how woefully out-of-touch Rick Santorum is with the views of voters and his fellow Catholics, the more I am convinced that the man should have been a priest.

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