We understand the apprehensions of the nation's Catholic bishops, but they would do well to follow the lead of the flock, most of who understand that President Obama's broadening of coverage for birth control is no attack on religious freedom.
Indeed, in framing the issue that way, the bishops stand to risk not only the confidence of those they are leading, but also, by appearing to engage in political activity, the church's tax-exempt status. It seems unlikely that could happen, but actions such as the "Fortnight for Freedom" carry more than a whiff of politics.
The Fortnight for Freedom, launched Thursday, is being pitched as a campaign in defense of religious liberty, which would be fine if religious liberty were under assault. What is happening, in fact, is that employers are being required to offer contraception services as part of the health insurance plans they provide to employees. The requirement does not include churches, but does include businesses run by churches, such as nursing homes, schools and hospitals.
That seems like a fair distinction. Why should one of those businesses be exempted from a regulation that applies to all other such businesses?
A new poll by the Public Religions Research Institute found that most Americans and most Catholics do not believe religious liberty is being threatened in the United States. The reason for that is simple: Religious liberty is not being threatened in the United States. Americans remain free to pray and attend church as they wish.
There is no effort to establish a government religion or to prevent the free exercise of religion. However, there is a public policy regarding employer obligations for health insurance, clearly a legitimate government concern.
That, of course, is where the Catholic Church has a problem, as it opposes all artificial means of birth control. It is, anyone can acknowledge, a sensitive issue, but the fact is that this requirement is hardly new. New York has enforced a similar state provision for years and, while the church initially opposed it, once it became law, it understood its obligation to comply.
And even if the church claims the protection of the First Amendment, the fact is that the Bill of Rights is not absolute. There are limits on freedom of the press and, the NRA's loony position notwithstanding, on the possession of firearms. The question is never whether a line exists, but where it is. Drawing it between the church and the mainly secular businesses it operates is a reasonable decision.
Many Americans, including many Catholics, are becoming distressed at what seems a wrongheaded slate of priorities for the church. Worst of all, of course, was its conscious decision to protect the child abusers in its midst, rather than the children those clerics abused. But also troubling are its campaign against American nuns and, now, what appears to many to be a political maneuver meant to undermine Obama in November's elections.
To a great extent, of course, that is a matter for the church's leaders and its faithful to sort out. But when the question is about the appropriate role of government regarding the operations of the church's important but secular side businesses, the church is entering a realm to which it is not well-suited. Its own members are saying so.