Trevor Brookins

*In the latest battle pitting democracy against theocracy, Obama’s healthcare program has taken center stage. At issue is the prospect of religious institutions contributing to the costs of birth control for people affiliated with them.

The critical piece of this debate is about whether schools and hospitals, and other institutions supported and founded by the Catholic Church will be compelled to contribute to a health care plan in which birth control can be obtained; by extension the larger question is whether the government can compel participation in government programs by groups that claim some type of conscientious objector status.

Conservatives, more specifically the religious right, consider this an infringement on the 1st Amendment because the federal government seems not to be allowing Catholics to operate according to their beliefs regarding the prohibition against birth control. However the 1st Amendment to our Constitution does not address this situation. It prohibits the government from establishing a national religion. In this case the government is not attempting to establish a religion, much to the contrary the government is trying to stop the Catholic church from gaining some special status.

Nevertheless conservatives have a point. And the issue hinges on whether we think of a Catholic university as more Catholic, or more university. This is where conservatives misinterpret the situation. While your local hospital may be called St. Luke’s, have a chapel, and have a mission statement rooted in Catholic principles, it is a hospital because of the public funding that it receives. Essentially if a hospital is going to accept public funding  in the form of taxes, then it must also accept public direction in the form of government policy regarding the funding.

Two examples will help to highlight this quid pro quo situation. Individuals who avoided being drafted in the armed services for the Vietnam War were not forgiven by the government. In fact they were imprisoned for not doing their part to help society. This was true even after public opinion began to turn against the war. In contrast the Amish have always been able to avoid military service because of their status as a group of people not intimately involved in American society.

The difference in these two groups is that members of one group, draft dodgers, were full participants in society, enjoying all of the benefits therein (essentially accepting public funding in the form of public schools, roads, regulated goods, etc.) until they suddenly wanted to opt out of one aspect of society. They were breaking their part of the deal in participating in American society. This is why draft dodgers left the country or faced jail time – they wanted a different deal with a different society.

The Amish on the other hand, have never claimed to participate in American society. They do not use public funding for schools, or depend on government regulated goods. So when they choose not to participate in something the government proposes it is not a break in their social contract.

So why is this issue a question of theocracy vs. democracy? Because even though the 1st Amendment is not in jeopardy, the basic fidelity of the citizenry is in question. More specifically whether people will choose to follow the mandates of the people at large – embodied in our elected representatives, or whether people will choose to follow the mandates of their church hierarchy.

Our democratic system allows for theology but not theocracy; religious concepts and guidelines are accepted and encouraged. But religious concepts cannot have the final say in our pluralistic society because it is impossible to say, even if only looking at Protestantism, which religion will have the final say. That is the real motivation behind the 1st Amendment.

It is worth pointing out that this government rule regarding birth control as part of health care does not apply to places of worship. That is churches, specifically because they do not rely on public funds to operate, are exempt from government direction in this instance. In other words, much to the contrary of what is being claimed, our democratic government is not seeking to eliminate theology.

It is not unreasonable for the people to want a say I how their tax money is being spent. If certain institutions want to opt out of the people’s directions, they can always opt out of receiving the people’s money.

Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War.  His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected]