When I was a child, my parents owned and operated a kosher supermarket. When my mom wanted me out of the house on Sundays, she would send me in to work with my dad. My very first job was to go up and down the aisles making sure every item had a kosher symbol. It was only years later that I realized that this was an elaborate ploy by my dad to keep me busy without being a nuisance. Well played, Dad.
I became really good at this job nonetheless, always feeling a sense of pride when I located the little symbol that certified the item as kosher. This was my first introduction to the Orthodox Union with its OU symbol. At first, I associated the symbol with pride; nowadays, I wish I could say the same.
Over the past few years, the Orthodox Union has strayed quite far from certifying Snickers bars. For some inexplicable reason, this organization, which provides wonderful services to the Orthodox community, has decided to tarnish its image by foolishly inserting itself into the culture wars.
The Orthodox Union has made a number of unnecessarily divisive public statements in the past few years, memorably in the aftermath of the legalization of gay marriage. These instances occurred when the OU did not need to say anything, but decided to take a side on a partisan issue, invariably alienating members of its constituency. But their most recent announcement, embracing the recent Trump Administration pronouncement
At a first, simplistic, glance, their move might seem to make sense. If indeed the government is infringing on people’s religious liberties, even if not Jewish liberties, the Orthodox Union might want to show solidarity with other religions in the hope that those organizations would do the same if Jewish liberties were under assault.
Additionally, it seems as though there is community support for this sort of action. Bethany Mandel of The Forward and Mitchell Rocklin of The Jewish Standard have both recently written articles advocating for the same thing. But this changes nothing, as religious liberties are not at stake and both of these writers make foolish arguments.
Here is the background. The Affordable Care Act included a provision that mandated health insurance companies to provide a minimum baseline of services. Among those requirements was the full coverage of contraception. As birth control is one of the most commonly utilized forms of health care in the country, this made a great deal of sense. The Obama administration realized that this may upset certain religious business owners, so the administration created an opt-out program for them. All the businesses needed to do was sign a form and they would not pay for contraception, the government would.
This bending-over-backwards showed the sensitivity of the Obama administration to religious liberties. But even this was challenged by, the adorably named, Little Sisters of the Poor case.
I do not want to wade into the legal aspects of this as the case is being punted around the judicial system, Rather, I would like to focus on the logical aspects of it.
Our healthcare system in America is messed up. If we could redesign it from scratch, I doubt anyone would choose a system where the health insurance for most people is provided through their employers. But that is how our system has evolved and we seem to lack the political will to change it.
So, given that employer based health insurance is the norm, we should make the system work as well as possible. The way to do that is to understand one crucial fact. Insurance is not given to employees by their bosses; rather, it is earned through an employees work. It is, effectively, part of an employee’s compensation. For an employer to make demands on how an employee uses his or her insurance is akin to an employer making demands on how an employee spends his or her salary. No one would accept the latter. No one should accept the former.
To apply this to our case. Employers are not paying for their employees contraception and thus going against their religion. The employees are paying for their own contraception and their employers have nothing to do with it. Religion is preserved. Case closed. There is no other argument needed.
Bur here is another argument. We have separation of church and state in this country. This is an amazing thing, especially for a religious minority. We do not need to ever worry about the government preventing us from practicing our faith or being forced to support another religion against our will. But that is what is happening here. The government is permitting employers to force their religious will on their employees who do not share that religious view.
It is hard enough to find a good job in this country. Do we really want to let the religion of our employer be a deciding factor in the types of jobs we choose? It seems obvious to me, but the Trump administration, the OU, and various Jewish writers seem to prefer permitting the government and employers to find new and exciting ways to control women through the guise of religion. By doing so they are not protecting religious liberty, they are desecrating it.
The OU should avoid affixing their valuable symbol to partisan pronouncements. But if they cannot avoid it, they should at least come down on the right side of the issue.
Eitan Kastner earned an MA in American Religious History from the University of Chicago. He is a high school history teacher.