As usual, the latest dust up over the Obama administration's decision to require church-affiliated employers to offer health-care insurance that covers contraceptives at no charge has generated more heat than light ("Obama's 'accommodation' wins support in birth control debate," Feb. 11).

Both sides in this tussle have made mean-spirited, divisive and unfair, if not outright untrue, claims about the other side and its supporters. Moreover, some recent letters decrying the policy are really missing the point.

Virtually all Americans support a religion's right to preach and practice its faith. This would definitely extend to organizations that are directly connected to the religious institution and whose mission it is to proselytize that religion's tenets.

However, as I understand it, this ruling covers organizations that have a more public function. Hospitals and schools are open to people of all faiths. When you are admitted to or hired by a Catholic hospital or schools, they don't ask if you are practicing member of that faith nor deny you admittance or employment if you are not.

Perhaps people at the very highest level, the CEO or members of the board of directors, might have to pass some religious litmus test. But the rank-and-file employees, the ones affected by this ruling, most certainly do not. If a religion is going to function in the public sphere it should have to abide by the same rules as everybody else.

In fact, the administration regulation is little more than a tweak of a 2000 ruling by the EEOC that required insurers and employers to cover contraceptive services for women and made failure to do so a form of illegal gender discrimination. While that ruling has not been tested all the way to the Supreme Court, it has been upheld by lower courts and remains the law of the land.

Truth be told, many of the loudest opponents of the ruling are against all requirements that health insurance policies cover contraceptives and would prefer that employers, the insurance industry and the market determine what is included. What is being fought over here is really a proxy war over broader health care policy in this country.

What can't be denied is that controlling whether and when to become pregnant is perhaps the most important health-care choice that confronts women. It is good public policy to allow access to contraceptives so that women can make their own decisions about this most personal issue.

Even though they aren't there yet, at some point in the future even the Catholic hierarchy will come to that conclusion and realize that behavior that is practiced by an overwhelming majority of adherents even though it is prohibited by church doctrine represents no threat to their core philosophy.

Joseph F. Baker, Parkville