America is in the midst of a gravely serious debate about religious liberty. It was touched off by news that President Barack Obama's health care law will coerce some religious groups to violate conscience by covering certain products and services in their health plans or face steep fines.
Sadly, liberals have conjured up distractions from this critical constitutional issue. They're charging defenders of the First Amendment with waging a "war on women." Yes, it's an absurd stretch. So is the claim that defending employers' ability to manage their own health plans -- free from the dictates of the health-care law -- amounts to putting "bosses in bedrooms."
And so is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent comment likening conservatives at home to radicals abroad: "Why extremists always focus on women remains a mystery to me," Clinton said at the Women in the World conference in New York on March 10. "But they all seem to. It doesn't matter what country they're in or what religion they claim. They want to control women."
This, according to the liberal spin, is all part of a grand strategy -- a "war on women." Ladies, beware: The nanny state has unleashed a rhetorical blitzkrieg, and you are the target. It's a distracting barrage of reckless claims that belittle women's intellectual freedom to make up our own minds on the merits of ideas, not spin.
The "war on women," says Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., "is a scare tactic that isn't going to work." Advocates of ever-bigger government, she says, are "trying to distract America from the real issues."
She's right. This couldn't be happening at a worse time. We need to talk about how to accelerate job growth, put power for health-care decisions back in the hands of consumers, and restore respect for the boundaries the Constitution puts around government so we can get on with our daily lives.
Take, for example, the recent Health and Human Services mandate under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. It requires all insurance plans to cover abortion-inducing drugs, contraception and sterilization at "no cost" to the insured. That includes plans offered by religious employers, even if the mandate violates their religious beliefs or moral convictions.
The religious exemption is the narrowest ever, covering only houses of worship. Other "good Samaritan" groups who serve the poor, sick, elderly and orphaned face the untenable choice: Violate their conscience or pay steep fines for keeping their faith by not complying with the mandate.
So who is really trying to control whom here? With requirements like these, no wonder the health-care law is in such legal and moral trouble at the second anniversary of its enactment. The outcry against the HHS mandate's violation of the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom became enormous. That's when proponents began characterizing the opposition as a "war on women."
Women aren't buying it, though. A recent CBS/New York Times poll found strong support for the freedom of religious employers: 57 percent said religious employers should not have to comply with the mandate, compared to 36 percent who said they should. Among women, the margin was 53 percent to 38 percent in favor of religious liberty.
You already can hear the spin cycle starting on another "women's issue" in Congress. The Senate is considering a bill to rewrite the Violence Against Women Act. With a name like that, who could be against it? We all condemn mistreatment of women.
But this bill is full of distractions. Of course violence against women must be fully prosecuted. Clarity and consistency in the law help assure that justice is done. Legislation creating new classes of victims -- some of whom aren't women -- will make it harder to achieve those objectives.
Mercifully, the rule of law has eradicated in the United States the kind of systemic oppression of women that still exists under what Secretary Clinton might rightly call extremist regimes abroad. Saudi Arabia and Iran, for example, have appalling records of denying women equal standing before the law and seriously restricting their freedom. China has subjected women to forced abortion.
One of the most fundamental freedoms that sets America apart from such oppressive regimes is the freedom to engage in vigorous debate about the direction of our country. Let's not forfeit that opportunity to engage in real debate by crying wolf about war.
American women can judge what constitutes a real war on women.
Jennifer A. Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation. Readers may write to the author in care of The Heritage Foundation, 214 Massachusetts Avenue NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; Web site: www.heritage.org.