In 1960, John F. Kennedy was running for president in a nation where a large number of voters had serious misgivings about electing someone who was a Roman Catholic. How could someone who owed his religious obedience to the Pope in Rome and the doctrines of the Catholic Church truly be trusted? Kennedy flew to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Houston and delivered a historic defense of the separation of church and state, of the ability of a devout Catholic to set aside his personal religious beliefs to follow the Constitutional demands of a secular nation.
Five men on the Supreme Court — all Catholics — may well just have proven him wrong.
Let us set aside for a moment the utter absurdity of the idea that a corporation — a soulless legal fiction created by the state solely to insulate individuals from personal liability — can have a “right” to a religion — any more than such a corporation has a “right” to exercise unregulated free speech by secretly dumping millions into our political system. No one who stayed awake in Corporate Law 101 could seriously defend such positions. In such rulings, these five justices are truly revolutionaries overthrowing legal precedent.
But, let us look at the Hobby Lobby decision itself — in which the ruling justices seem to grant and simultaneously take away such a religious “right.” Don’t try to apply this new right to anything other than contraception, they warn. Apparently, Jehovah’s Witness- or Christian Science-owned companies need not apply for this new “right.” It’s OK. Your blood transfusions and antibiotics are safe from corporate religion.
Only corporate religious opposition to contraception is a corporate religious right. Contraception is somehow special, and opposition to contraception is somehow a special religious right.
Of course, contraception is special. Only women need it as part of health care coverage. Men can buy condoms without a prescription, but if women wish to protect themselves against an unplanned pregnancy, they generally need a more expensive medical option. It is women who need contraception to have real control of their bodies and lives.
It is not a coincidence that all three women on the court dissented. They understand that contraception coverage is special, too: specially important. But, sadly, neither is it a coincidence that the five men in the majority are Roman Catholic.
Of course, it is not unusual for men — especially conservative men — to fail to appreciate the importance of issues that primarily affect women. Hence the existence of the political term “war on women.” But, as myself a product of over 15 years of Catholic education, I can recognize the special seepage of doctrinaire Catholicism in the Hobby Lobby decision. Of all major Christian religions, only Catholics are taught that all forms of artificial birth control are inherently sinful. The message is drilled into our heads from first grade that contraception is “special” — a special evil.
Seriously, why else would only contraception be a special case for five male Catholic Justices — much as it is for Cardinal Timothy Dolan?
Which brings me back to JFK and Houston. Because if the lives of American women are to be held hostage to the doctrines taught to Anthony Kennedy in his grade school religion class, then — at least about trusting Catholic men on the Supreme Court — President Kennedy was wrong.
Philip F. Cardarella of Kansas City is former president of the board of the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri. He is an attorney and graduate of Notre Dame School of Law.