The dirty little secret about the contraception debate is, it's about the ability of religiously-affiliated employers to use their health insurance policies as a means of discriminating against employees and applicants not of their own faith.
More about which below the sleeping orange squirrels.
The history of employment discrimination is one of increasing degrees of subtlety.
At first, entire categories of employment were barred to persons of various races and ethnicities. When the categories themselves were forced open by law, employers still retained the "right" to discriminate, for example by posting signs such as "Help Wanted, no Irish need apply."
When that sort of overt discrimination was banned, it merely went underground. For example an employer might request someone's baptismal certificate as identification, thereby locking out Jews. Or an employer might set work schedules in a manner that didn't accommodate persons of other faiths, such as by not allowing Fridays or Saturdays off from work, thereby "discouraging" Muslims and observant Jews. For certain categories of employees, other requirements might be imposed, such that all sales representatives had to join a certain golf club or other social club that in turn had discriminatory membership policies: so if you couldn't join the club, you couldn't get the job.
The general pattern was one of a gradual movement from completely locking out certain groups of people, toward "merely" "discouraging" them, thereby reducing their numbers in the workplace to a token minimum. The goal was always to set up measures that were effectively discriminatory but had plausible deniability.
Over time, most of these practices were banned by law, under the doctrine of discriminatory effect. That is, the law did not have to prove that discrimination was deliberate, only that the effect of a set of employment policies was discriminatory. Very often this was done by comparing the makeup of a given workplace with that of the community at-large or with comparable workplaces. In a city with a population that was, for example 15% Jewish and 20% black, a workplace with 100 employees and a remarkable absence of Jews and blacks would come in for scrutiny and possibly for a mandatory legal remedy.
With all these pesky laws and regulations, what's a red-blooded bigot to do?
Which brings us to contraception.
The latest trick is to use health insurance as the stand-in for "No such-and-suches need apply."
In the US at present, only the Catholic church and a few extreme right-wing Protestant denominations have official church doctrines banning all use of effective contraception by their members. Thus a ban on contraception coverage by Catholic-affiliated employers has the effect of putting people of other religions and no religion on notice that they are not welcome here, in a very concrete way.
If this becomes precedent, it will be a loophole in the discrimination laws large enough to sail a slave-ship through.
Employers affiliated with the LDS Church (Mormons), that officially disapproves of smoking and drinking, might exclude coverage of lungs and livers. Employers affiliated with Scientology, that considers psychiatry to be demonic, might exclude coverage of medications such as antidepressants.
Consider the health and health-related lifestyle taboos of all of the world's religions, and apply them to health insurance coverage. What you have there is a matrix for enabling any religiously-affiliated employer to impose their own church's doctrines as an effective means of screening applicants and employees.
This is not some kind of abstraction: it can easily become a matter of life and death. But it has all the trimmings of plausible deniability, since after all, a large range of excludable conditions are arguably lifestyle-related, and the lifestyle in question can always be demonized to discourage any protest. "You shouldn't be drinking anyway, and you chose to go work for a Mormon-owned company so don't complain!" (For those who don't know this, an innocent combination of alcohol and Tylenol can send you to the hospital in need of a liver transplant or you will die. A weekend whoop-it-up followed by Tylenol for the hangover can be sufficient to trigger this one.)
If we allow religiously-affiliated employers to enforce their religious doctrines via their health insurance plans, what we have just done is allowed them to set up employment entry barriers to persons not of their own faith.
That's the bottom line.
And that deserves to be addressed in the public debate over contraception and Catholic employers.
Dear Mr. President: don't give in to the latest form of bigotry and discrimination!