President Obama – It IS about Religious Freedom « maslansky + partners

President Obama – It IS about Religious Freedom

by Keith Yazmir

It is a truism in politics that he who frames the debate generally wins the debate.

Exhibit A: the battle over whether religious-affiliated institutions should be required to cover birth control in their private health plans.  It’s about women’s rights!  It’s about freedom of religion!  It’s about sexual morality!

But while the Limbaugh-ian fireworks and morality battles have been attracting most of the media attention, the thing that has most stood out to me is how quick the Obama administration and its allies have been to cede the frame of religious freedom.

In politics, as in all forms of communication, the question is not how many total people your message works with, but whether it works with the RIGHT people.  And in this case, that means the all-important swing voters who will not only choose our next president but also the congress he must work with.  It is with this group of independents that questions of religion can – and do – play a more important role.

Many opponents of contraception coverage have tried to paint themselves as the defenders of religious freedom, their frame being that it is the right of the institution to decide the healthcare policy that conforms to its religious beliefs.  And nobody has come forward to challenge that.

But centuries of U.S. jurisprudence have tended to define freedom in terms of individual liberty – which in the case of religion, means the right of the individual to decide what religious principles to follow and how to follow them.

Instead of ceding the religion argument to his opponents, why has Obama not done more to reframe his opponents’ definition of religious freedom?  Why hasn’t he – or someone – argued that providing contraceptive coverage supports the religious freedom of the individual to practice their religion as they see fit – not as their employer, and certainly not as the government, sees fit.  This approach flips the frame from one of the government mandating the choices of an institution to one of the government mandating how employees choose to practice their religion.

No one would argue that it is the responsibility of government to assist all religions to enforce their doctrines of faith.  That, for example, public transportation should charge Jews more on Saturdays to disincentivize them from breaking the Sabbath.  Or that food stamps should not apply to meat on Good Friday to help poorer Catholics remain pious.

We live in a country where we respect the individual’s right to make their religious choices as they and they alone see fit – without government interfering and taking sides either way.  Women of faith who believe birth control is wrong remain as free as they have always been to make the moral choice not to use it.  But is it really the role of government to help make that choice for them?  Couldn’t that be framed as the real abridgement of religious freedom?

I am not arguing, by the way, that the administration’s decision to frame the issue in terms of women’s rights and reproductive health has been misguided.  In fact judging by most recent polling, it has proven extremely effective.  My question, however, is whether by focusing solely on the women’s rights frame, has the administration missed an opportunity to champion religious freedoms – a platform that may have ended up helping more come November.

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