Food and weapons: they're my rights, too

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At the risk of offending, let me put the current constitutional conflict in terms that some of you who lean left might find easier to accept.

Let's say you're a pacifist, and you belong to a pacifist religious organization. Maybe it's the Mennonite Central Committee, the Jewish Peace Fellowship, Pax Christi or any of numerous Quaker groups.

Let's say your organization needs a new staffer and you hire me because I'm a perfect fit for the job and an all-around wonderful human being.

Imagine that at some point during my tenure with your organization, a right-wing president and Congress so advance the cause of a citizen militia, as it existed in the Founders' day, that a law is passed mandating employers to provide employees with free guns if the employees wish to have them.

And I do!

Unbeknownst to you, I feel strongly about the Second Amendment. I believe it's necessary to my personal safety and well-being to bear arms, but the weapons and ammunition I need to exercise this right can get quite expensive. It would be very helpful to my budget to get them for free.

There is much public controversy over this new legislation, of course, and you, my pacifist employer, are among its most outspoken opponents.

"I have the right to own a weapon," I remind you, "and it's so fundamental a right that it should be part of the terms of my employment."

"But a central tenet of our organization is that using weapons is wrong," you say. "Buying you a weapon violates our doctrine and therefore our constitutional right to the free exercise of religion."

"But I have a constitutional right to bear arms."

"Yes, you do, but we should have no obligation to buy them for you."

And that, dear readers, is the crux of the argument over Obamacare's employer-provided contraception mandate.

It is always risky to argue by analogy -- which is why in two previous columns on this topic, I did not, sticking instead with the abstract principles and specific details of the conflict.

But this analogy is a near-perfect fit. Guns and contraceptives are consumer products that we all have the right to use, but the use of one or the other violates some faith-based organizations' doctrine.

There's one small difference between them, though. The right to bear arms is actually articulated in the U.S. Constitution, while the right to health care is not -- even though the Founders and subsequent generations had doctors, medicine and hospitals.

Of course, the Ninth Amendment guarantees that "enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people" -- including, as the Supreme Court has famously held, the right to privacy.

One of our inalienable rights -- per the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution -- is the right to life, so our system of laws has held that in urgent situations you cannot be denied emergency medical treatment, regardless of ability to pay. (In this sense the "right to health care" existed prior to its current distorted meaning as an obligation to buy it for others.)

The right to life also quickly loses its meaning without food. In fact, you can't go very long without eating but you can get by for years without seeing a doctor. Does your right to life mean that your boss should buy your groceries?

He does, you say? You mean, indirectly, by giving you a paycheck with which you can choose the foods you want? Then why not get health care the same way?

Why not move toward liberty and away from unconstitutional compulsion?

Some defenders of the contraception mandate have argued, ridiculously, that as citizens we are often forced to pay, through taxes, for policies or budget items we don't agree with -- and we don't get an exemption or a tax refund for those.

But this conflict is not about the use of taxes -- it's about the use of private funds.

Think again about my pacifist analogy: Individual pacifists pay taxes that support our national defense and armed police forces. They may not agree, but they don't get a refund for the portion of their taxes used for those purposes. The government, however, does not compel them to serve as soldiers or to use their own money to buy guns -- for themselves or others.

The same constitutional restraint should apply to the many Catholic and evangelical organizations for which financing, say, abortion-inducing drugs would be an abrogation of their right to the free exercise of religion. Their resistance to this coercion is not a "war on women" -- and those who say it is are waging war on the Constitution and on reason itself.


Ruth Ann Dailey: ruthanndailey@hotmail.com .


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