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Notre Dame sues Obama: Is their religion a faith or an excuse?

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Notre Dame is leading the charge in suing the Obama administration over the health care mandate requiring that employers' health care insurance cover birth control. They claim that the mandate infringes on their religious freedom guaranteed in the constitution.

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

They are the first words in the Bill of rights. I am no constitutional expert, but I can see where they would leave room for interpretation. What does "free exercise" mean? How far can it go?

It was intended to keep the government from getting involved in religion and vice versa, but what do we do when these two worlds cross? When a religious organization buys property, must it abide by all the laws that apply to other property owners? The taxes and codes associated with property fall under the authority of government, but would restricting the legal use of property be prohibiting free exercise of religion? On the other hand, how might allowing free reign to all religious organizations trample the rights of others? And does a religious organization need to be allowed to do anything it wants in order to exercise freely? Do these words mean that anything goes?

This has always been and will probably continue to be debated, but it is disturbing how often religious authorities use the shield of religion and faith to hide their own self-serving purposes, to wield power, or to oppress others. Not all religious people do this, in fact many are sincere in their faith that inspires them to good deeds. When some people's use of religion costs others, though, a line must be drawn.

It makes no sense, for example, that clerics do not pay the same in income taxes as the rest of the country. A minister does not have to pay tax on the portion of income used for housing, which includes rent or mortgage, utilities, furnishings, and all household items. This means that often half of their income is not taxed, and yet they still benefit from all those services paid for by all our taxes. How is it right that our tax dollars are subsidizing the clergy?

Labor laws, intended to ensure equity and justice in the workplace, hold religious organizations to a lower standard. Sex and race discrimination that are penalized elsewhere must be overlooked in faith-based organizations, as people use religion as an excuse for their bigotry. The government won't touch that.

But when religious organizations move out of their private sphere and into the world of education, medicine, and commerce, is it unreasonable that they must submit to the authority that governs these spheres? No, in fact we recognize in so many ways that this is reasonable. Religious schools must meet certain standards to be accredited. Hospitals must follow health codes. Churches must charge sales tax on commodities sold.

And so why, if the government requires specific minimum standards for health care insurance, standards set for the good of public health, would it not apply to all employers choosing to operate in the sphere of employer-employee relations? It may have been religious fervor that inspired the building of a hospital, but its existence is not necessary for the free exercise of religion. A high-minded faithful person may have felt called by God to start a university, but its parent organization does not require its continuance to practice its faith. Therefore, they fall under the regulation that any other organization would fall under, including laws that we all must follow for the good of society and for justice for all.

Over half of the states in our country already require that any health care insurer that covers prescription drugs include contraceptives in the coverage. This is nothing new, and the laws were created with public health in mind. If private citizens believe this shouldn't be required and want to do away with the laws, then they may. But it is time to stop hiding behind religion to dominate over others, and it is time that we stop catering to that behavior. Freedom of religion does not apply here.

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