Fissures in the religious liberty debate?
In a move that escalated the political controversy about contraception and religious liberty, 44 Catholic bishops and colleges filed lawsuits last week challenging the requirement that health insurance plans cover birth control without a copayment.
But it’s also notable that relatively few leaders participated – only 13 of America’s 195 Catholic dioceses joined the suits. And in a move that was little noticed outside religious media, a prominent bishop expressed concern that the entire debate is being co-opted by right-wing groups bent on attacking President Obama.
That might sound like inside baseball, but it’s a clear sign of significant internal fissures over the Catholic bishops’ increasingly politicized confrontation against the Obama administration. As Republican politicians accuse the president of waging war on religious freedom and extremist religious leaders compare the administration to totalitarian dictatorships, a warning against partisanship is welcome news.
Amid all the hyperbolic claims about supposedly grave threats to religious liberty, it’s worth taking another look at the facts of the contraception coverage debate.
Last year the independent Institute of Medicine reviewed medical research and public comments about which health care services should be classified as essential preventive services to be covered without a copayment in health insurance plans. Contraception was identified as one of these services. This was an evidence-based health policy decision, not an ideological attack on religious liberty.
Recognizing that some religions consider contraception wrong, the Department of Health and Human Services carved out an exemption to this requirement for religious institutions. After many moderate faith leaders criticized the exemption as too narrow, the Obama administration offered a further accommodation ensuring that institutions such as religious schools, charities, social service providers and hospitals won’t be required to pay for contraception coverage for their employees. Final versions of these regulations are being formulated right now. Unfortunately, many of the loudest voices in this debate either pretend this accommodation was never offered or inaccurately dismiss it as an “accounting gimmick.”
This controversy isn’t going away, and it’s not just a Catholic issue. Some evangelical leaders have suggested that they will join the Catholic bishops’ upcoming “fortnight for freedom” campaign to mobilize Christians nationwide to stand against alleged threats to religious liberty. I hope moderate voices who prefer dialogue and good-faith negotiation over litigation and inflammatory rhetoric become more influential. The debate we’re having now is rooted more in politics than it is in reality.