How Far Should The State Accommodate Religious Beliefs?

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image showing an Amish Buggy on a road with the slow moving trangle on the backDuring the debate over the government requiring employers to provide coverage for birth control, we’ve heard one argument, false as it is, that in doing so would infringe on religious beliefs. Although that isn’t a valid argument it does bring up the question about how far does a state go to accommodate religious beliefs? The real debate is where is that line between the public good and a person’s beliefs. When can that line be crossed? The simple answer is the line can be crossed when the religious beliefs might harm other people like those needing access to birth control.

Here is an example of protests from the Catholic church about the birth control mandate:

Bishop Blair, the keynote speaker at the noon rally, said he perceives a “very frightening” erosion of religious liberty in America today that poses a threat to all religions and volunteer groups, not just the Roman Catholic Church.

“First of all, it’s not about the religious freedom of Catholics only, but all of those who recognize that their cherished beliefs might be next on the block,” the bishop said.

And it’s not about access to contraception, Bishop Blair asserted, adding that “contraception is ubiquitous and inexpensive in our country even when it’s not provided by the church’s hand or with the church’s funds.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been strident in its opposition to the health-care mandate ever since the Department of Health and Human Services issued the new rules on Jan. 20 as part of the Affordable Care Act. One point of contention is the government’s limited exemption for the coverage, affecting only religious groups that hire and serve those who share the same religious beliefs. That excludes the vast majority of Catholic hospitals and universities.

500 rally to oppose health-care mandate

This view is false of course because the church isn’t being forced to take birth control (and churches were explicitly exempt from the mandate) but it’s wrongly conflating contributing funds to the health insurance plan where birth control is covered as if they are being forced to go against their teachings. The mandate doesn’t force the church to accept birth control but what it does is help the individuals who will decide to use birth control, to have better access for it.

Religious accommodation doesn’t just concern health insurance. There are other rules, regulations, and laws that might conflict with religious beliefs. How far does the state go in accommodating the religious? Here is an example from Ohio:

A packed house is expected on Tuesday when the Kenton-Hardin Board of Health is to hear an appeal of its orders condemning two new Amish homes and evicting the families who live in them.

The Amish say they seek a compromise that allows them to keep their plain and simple lifestyle. Hardin County Prosecutor Brad Bailey says this isn’t about the Amish breaking their tenet of shunning modern conveniences; it’s about protecting the environment and personal health.

Last summer, the health board said it would start enforcing rules that any new home must have a proper well and septic system, something the Old Order Amish have never had to do. Health inspectors said they would not force existing Amish homes to change.

Septic, well rules could evict Amish

The problem started after the state of Ohio updated its septic system rules that hadn’t been updated since the 1970’s. It not only has caused issues with non-Amish Ohioans but is what led to the dispute featured in the quote above.

The Amish are a Christian sect that live a simple life. They use little to no modern technology, no electricity, no telephones, and drive buggies for personal transportation. As the article states the Amish in Hardin county believe the new rules cross the line and will infringe on their religious beliefs.

The Amish have made other compromises when state rules or laws might infringe on their beliefs. The one we see all the time is the orange slow-vehicle triangle they put on the back of their buggies. The Amish beliefs don’t allow for brightly colored ornamentation but the state law requiring the orange slow-vehicle triangle apply to all slow vehicles and is an attempt to help other drivers see the buggy and keep the occupants safe.

In the Ohio septic system dispute, other Amish have worked things out with the government:

All other Ohio counties with an Amish population have long ago settled similar disputes, although Knox County had to go to court to do it. Logan County, for example, agreed to let the Amish build their own pits as a compromise. Holmes County, with the state’s largest Amish population, says the Amish follow the rules.

That’s where the line between state laws and religious beliefs exist. Laws are reasonable if they apply to everyone equally and doesn’t violate religious beliefs as long as those beliefs don’t harm others. Not following the septic system rules could not only hurt your family but other people since the pollution could get into the water supply. Parents that have religious beliefs that only call for prayer when you are sick have been prosecuted for a child who died due to non-treatment of an illness.

The main take away in evaluating new rules, regulations, and laws is if those new laws actually prevent you from practicing your religion. Simply disagreeing with the new law should not be enough to gain an accommodation from the state.


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