A group of nuns called the Little Sisters of the Poor are in the news lately because of their lawsuit against the federal government for having to sign a form that certifies their religious-based exemption to providing contraceptive health coverage for their employees. They claim their religious freedom is violated even though they are not being asked to pay for birth control because admitting in writing that they oppose it means that somebody else would theoretically provide the coverage even though the nuns’ religiously exempt insurances company wouldn’t cover contraception anyway. The Supreme Court “resolved” the issue by giving the nuns a different form to fill out with the same information. But here’s the problem with this case and any of the other anti-Obamacare cases like it if one of the plaintiffs finally wins: what if a religious group uses it as a precedent to sue Uncle Sam over something other than sex?
Though you wouldn’t know it by looking at the American church, Christian moral teaching actually covers topics other than sex. The Catholic Church has a whole slew of social teaching. So do the Methodists and most other denominations. The reason Sarah Palin called Pope Francis a liberal is because he faithfully shared the church’s teaching about capitalism. When it comes to war, some Christians are pacifist; many others subscribe to a rigid set of standards for justifying war called the “just war doctrine.” None of the church’s statements about capitalism or war create any concern for capitalists or warhawks because they know these statements are empty gestures that completely lack teeth.
This would all change under the radical definition of religious persecution being advanced by the Little Sisters of the Poor case. To give an analogy, this would be like a conscientious objector who’s part of a Marine platoon arguing that not only should he be discharged from the military for his conscientious objection but that the unit should not be allowed to replace him but forced to deploy with one man short. Under such a rationale, his conscientious objection only counts if his absence puts his team permanently in the penalty box.
I know whichever culture warrior picked a group of nuns to sue the government over contraceptives figured that it would be good optics. Who is going to oppose a group of nuns? The problem is that Catholic nuns aren’t always good at walking lockstep with the strange alliance of the Reagan era of American Christianity between the capitalists, warhawks, and sexual traditionalists (“social conservative” or “family values” are the wrong terms because they connote the inclusion of concerns other than sex like pro-family immigration and labor policies). What if Pax Christi or Sojourners sues Uncle Sam using precedents established by the anti-condom lobby? Religious “freedom” could get very interesting in the coming years.