Who’s Not Speaking at Today’s Religious Freedom Hearing?
This morning, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) has scheduled a hearing for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about the HHS decision requiring insurance plans to include contraception and its effect on religious freedom. The Republicans that control the committee have invited religious and academic leaders, including a Catholic bishop, to testify about their view that the new regulation violates their conscience rights.
Who they have not invited are any of the wide array of affected religious organizations who disagree with this assessment like the Catholic Health Association, Catholic Charities or the Association of Jesuit Colleges and University.
They also haven’t invited any women whose
right to have their birth control covered by their employer-provided insurance would be eliminated under the proposed conservative rollback of this law.
Noticing this, the ranking minority member of the committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), attempted to invite such a witness to the panel. An open letter from Rep. Cummings from to Rep. Issa explains what happened next:
When my staff inquired about requesting minority witnesses for this hearing, we were informed that you would allow only one. Based on your decision, we requested as our minority witness a third-year Georgetown University Law Center student named Sandra Fluke. I believed it was critical to have at least one woman at the witness table who could discuss the repercussions that denying coverage for contraceptives has on women across this country.
In response, your staff relayed that you had decided as follows:
As the hearing is not about reproductive rights and contraception but instead about the Administration’s actions as they relate to freedom of religion and conscience, he believes that Ms. Fluke is not an appropriate witness.
Procedural games aside, this exchange highlights an important characteristic of the way this debate is playing out. Given the reality that birth control is extremely popular in America and that majorities of Americans (including Catholics) support requiring employers to cover it, conservatives are desperate to keep the details of this issue out of the conversation.
Instead, they appear to think that if they can frame this issue as exclusively about religious freedom (and portray agreeing with one particular view as the only way to respect it), they’ll find more popular support.
Today’s hearing is not so much about learning anything new as it is having the panelists reinforce that frame in a high-profile bit of political theater. Keeping Ms. Fluke or other witnesses like her from testifying is simply a matter of message control.