Who’s Not Speaking at Today’s Religious Freedom Hearing?

February 16, 2012, 8:19 am | Posted by

Reps. Cummings and Issa (AP Photo)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.

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A Blunt Instrument

February 15, 2012, 2:36 pm | Posted by

Later this month, the Senate will vote on the Blunt Amendment – legislation that repeals not only the requirement that employers offer health insurance plans that cover contraception without  a copay, but also allows employers to refuse to offer coverage of any medical service they object to on moral grounds. It’s completely open-ended. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said he supports the legislation.

In other words, the folks who warned that “Obamacare” would put a government bureaucrat between you and your doctor have no problem putting Donald Trump in charge of which specific medical treatments his employees may and may not have. Unfortunately, prominent faith leaders are supporting this radical amendment:

Leaving coverage decisions up to each employers’ conscience might create chaos in the marketplace, “but chaos is sometimes the price you pay for freedom,” said Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, who is backing the bishops whole-heartedly.

Land’s statement reflects an extremely privileged notion of “freedom.” Arguing that a private employer should be able to impose his moral values on employees to the extent that he controls the specifics of their health care shows a greater concern for the individual preferences of the powerful than for the welfare of everyday people.

Someone with libertarian leanings might say “well, if employees are dissatisfied with their coverage, they are free to get a job elsewhere.” But when jobseekers outnumber job openings 4-to-1 nationwide and almost half of Americans are one economic shock away from poverty, that’s cold comfort.

This isn’t about the consciences of religious institutions, this is about giving every employer – from the most virtuous to the most unscrupulous — power to impose their “morals” on their employees, medical consequences be damned. Given that our society is already rife with examples of business owners abusing their employees, the Blunt Amendment puts families in danger by subjecting their healthcare to the whims of employers who have an economic incentive to make up moral reasons to offer inadequate insurance.

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Catholic Bishops’ Lonely Contraception Fight

February 14, 2012, 10:50 am | Posted by

USCCB Building - CNSThe Obama administration’s ability to find a productive way forward on an unexpected election-year showdown over contraception coverage has been celebrated by a diverse range of organizations as a solution that protects religious liberty and advances women’s health. When the Catholic Health Association and Planned Parenthood Federation of America both hailed the decision, it showed just how precisely the White House threaded a difficult political and policy needle. While conservative Catholics are already lining up to pounce on this important achievement, let’s be clear that those supporting this deal represent some of the most important Catholic institutions in the country.

The Catholic Health Association is not some nice little trade group with a colorful newsletter. It’s the Church’s premier health care ministry and the largest group of nonprofit health providers in the nation, representing more than 600 hospitals and 1,400 long-term care and other health facilities in all 50 states.  Sister Carol Keehan, CHA’s president, is a nationally renowned health care expert and a major political force in the passage of health care reform.

Other Catholic institutions and leaders, including Catholic Charities USA, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, NETWORK, and prominent theologians have all expressed relief that the White House has addressed legitimate concerns raised over a religious exemption that covered churches and other houses of worship but not religiously-affiliated organizations such as Catholic hospitals, universities or charities. Under a revision announced last Friday, these institutions will not have to pay for services that violate their moral beliefs or even refer employees for this coverage.

Instead, if your employer is an objecting university, hospital or other religious institution, the insurer (not the employer) will be required to offer coverage at no cost.  As prominent Catholic theologians and other Christian leaders noted in a statement:

This is a sensible, common-ground solution. In recent days, sound bites and divisive rhetoric have too often pitted the faith community against sound science and public health. The previous regulations caused an unnecessary conflict between the administration, the Catholic Church and other religious institutions. We are encouraged that the Obama administration has developed a substantive solution that addresses the concerns of the many constituencies involved. We look forward to bringing the same level of passion displayed in this debate to other pressing moral issues that face our nation.

Problem solved, right? Not so fast.  After initially calling the change a “ first step in the right direction,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops posted a follow-up reaction Friday night expressing concern that the proposal “continues to involve needless government intrusion in the internal governance of religious institutions…The only complete solution to this religious liberty problem is for HHS to rescind the mandate of these objectionable services.”

The bishops are moving the goal posts.  Even many moderate and liberal Catholics expressed sympathy with the bishops’ argument that Catholic universities, hospitals and social service providers should not be forced to pay for something that Catholic teaching calls immoral. Now that this specific objection has been addressed in a way that works for (or at least begins the process of satisfying) most Catholic institutions that actually provide direct services, the bishops will not be content it seems until all employees in the country are denied coverage for contraception.

Even before USCCB’s objections were posted, Anthony Picarello, the bishops’ associate general counsel, shifted from the bishops’ core argument that religiously affiliated institutions should not be forced to provide birth control coverage to make this stunning leap in an interview with USA Today:

We’re not going to do anything until this is fixed. That means removing the provision from the health care law altogether, he said, not simply changing it for Catholic employers and their insurers. He cited the problem that would create for “good Catholic business people who can’t in good conscience cooperate with this.” “If I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell, I’d be covered by the mandate,” Picarello said.

So a high-ranking USSCB official is seriously making the case that a business with no religious context at all should be exempt from providing birth control coverage to its employees? A curious argument especially given that in those 28 states where employers are already required to provide coverage for contraception many Catholic hospitals and universities have for years offered employees this coverage without provoking a massive political outcry.

This hasn’t stopped some bishops from rhetorical flights of grandeur –  comparing this disagreement between the bishops and President Obama to what happens under North Korea’s dictatorial regime.  One Catholic pastor has reportedly called this “our Rosa Parks moment.”

It’s not surprising bishops can’t take yes for an answer from this administration. Since Obama was elected the bishops have relished a confrontational posture. At some point they have to ask themselves whether they want to fight these lonely battles from the sidelines or be engaged in a more prudent way.

I’m afraid Catholic bishops run the risk of alienating even moderate Catholics who respect our church leaders when they appear to relish a fight instead of finding common ground. A few examples:

  • Just days after the 2008 election, bishops gathered for a national meeting and spoke in apocalyptic terms about the supposed threat posed by Freedom of Choice Act. Remember that bishops sponsored a national postcard campaign to lobby Congress and the White House against this bill that was never even introduced. After weeks of frenzied lobbying and action alerts, even Catholic News Service felt the need to debunk unsubstantiated rumors of Catholic hospitals being forced to perform abortions as unsubstantiated rumors.
  • Catholic bishops blasted the University of Notre Dame for inviting President Obama to give the 2009 commencement address, a speech that even drew praise from a Vatican newspaper for its thoughtful tenor on difficult issues such as abortion.
  • The bishops’ long advocacy for universal health care stalled when they opposed the Obama administration’s historic health care reform legislation over a misguided belief that it would provide taxpayer funding of abortion, a flawed policy analysis according to the Catholic Health Association, independent experts and the courts.

In the coming weeks it will be critical for those Catholic institutions that have supported this sensible solution to defend it with as much energy as bishops and Republican leaders will oppose it.

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Faith Leaders, Theologians Celebrate Common-Ground Solution on Contraception, Religious Liberty

February 10, 2012, 2:57 pm | Posted by

In addition to the leaders mentioned in my previous post about religious groups commending the Obama administration’s common-ground solution on conscience exemptions and contraceptive coverage, numerous prominent faith leaders and theologians released a statement lauding the decision this afternoon. The press release and list of signatories are below and available here:

Today, national faith leaders and organizations are celebrating the White House’s announcement of a common-sense, common-ground solution to religious liberty concerns around contraception coverage that protects women’s access to important preventive health care. The regulation expands religious exemptions within the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that contraceptive services be covered without copayment in health insurance plans, while guaranteeing that employees of religious institutions can obtain family planning and other preventive health services directly from their insurance providers. Below is a statement from Catholic and Protestant leaders celebrating the decision as “major victory for religious liberty and women’s health.”

Today the Obama administration announced an important regulation that will protect the conscience rights of religious organizations and ensure that all women have access to contraception without a co-payment. We applaud the White House for listening carefully to the concerns raised by religious leaders on an issue that has provoked heated and often misinformed debate. This ruling is a major victory for religious liberty and women’s health. President Obama has demonstrated that these core values do not have to be in conflict.

Specifically, this new regulation guarantees that no religiously affiliated institution will have to pay for services that violate its moral beliefs or even refer employees for this coverage. Instead, if a woman’s employer is an objecting university, hospital or other religious institution, her insurer will be required to offer her coverage at no cost. This is a sensible, common-ground solution.

In recent days, sound bites and divisive rhetoric have too often pitted the faith community against sound science and public health. The previous regulations caused an unnecessary conflict between the administration, the Catholic Church and other religious institutions. We are encouraged that the Obama administration has developed a substantive solution that addresses the concerns of the many constituencies involved. We look forward to bringing the same level of passion displayed in this debate to other pressing moral issues that face our nation.

Sister Simone Campbell
Executive Director
NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby

Institute Leadership Team of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas

Terrence W. Tilley
Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., Professor of Catholic Theology Chair, Theology Department
Fordham University

Rev. Paul Crowley SJ
Jesuit Community Professor of Theology
Santa Clara University

Nicholas P. Cafardi
Dean Emeritus and Professor of Law
Duquesne University School of Law

Vincent J. Miller
Gudorf Chair in Catholic Theology and Culture
University of Dayton

Douglas W Kmiec
United States Amb. (ret)
Professor of Constitutional Law and Caruso Family Chair in Constitutional Law
Pepperdine University

Kristin Heyer
Associate Professor, Religious Studies
Santa Clara University

Gerald J. Beyer
Associate Professor of Theology
Saint Joseph’s University

Stephen Schneck
Director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies
Catholic University of America

Francis Schüssler Fiorenza
Stillman Professor of Roman Catholic Theological Studies Harvard Divinity School
Cambridge, MA

John Inglis
Chair and Professor of Philosophy
Cross-appointed to Religious Studies
University of Dayton

Bradford E. Hinze
Professor of Theology
Fordham University
Bronx, NY

David DeCosse
Director of Campus Ethics Programs
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics
Santa Clara UniversitY

Todd Whitmore
Associate Professor of Theology
University of Notre Dame

Sr. Paulette Skiba
Professor of Religious Studies
Clarke University

Michael E. Lee
Associate Professor of Theology
Fordham University

Tobias Winright
Associate Professor of Theological Ethics
Saint Louis University

Richard R. Gaillardetz
McCarthy Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology
Boston College

Christopher Pramuk
Assistant Professor of Theology
Xavier University

Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite
Professor of Theology
Chicago Theological Seminary

The Rev. Canon Peg Chemberlin
Immediate Past President
National Council of Churches

Rev. Anne Howard
Executive Director
The Beatitudes Society

Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo
United Church of Christ
Justice and Witness Ministries

Rev. Richard Cizik
President
New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good

Dr. David Gushee
Board Chair and Co-Founder
New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good

Rev. Alexander Sharp
Executive Director
Protestants for the Common Good

Dr. Sharon E. Watkins
General Minister and President
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada

Rev. Dr. Ken Brooker Langston
Director
Disciples Justice Action Network (DJAN)

Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner
President
Skinner Leadership Institute

Linda Bales Todd
Director of Women’s Advocacy
General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church

Jim Winkler
General Secretary
General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church

Rev. Randolph Bracy, Jr.
Senior Pastor, New Covenant Baptist Church
Orlando, FL

Lisa Sharon Harper
Director of Mobilizing
Sojourners

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Faith leaders, women’s health groups support Obama’s contraception solution

February 10, 2012, 2:12 pm | Posted by

This morning the Obama administration announced an important solution to the intense controversy regarding religious exemptions to the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that contraceptive services be covered without copayment in health insurance plans. The policy will ensures that religious institutions won’t have to provide coverage of or referrals for contraception, but also guarantees that women employed by these institutions will have access to contraception without a co-pay. If a woman’s employer is an objecting university, hospital or other religious institution, her insurer will be required to initiate contact and offer her coverage at no cost.

A broad range of leaders and stakeholders have welcomed the new exemption policy, showing that it’s a true common-ground solution.

The Catholic Health Association, which runs hundreds of hospitals across  the country, supported the Affordable Care Act, and strongly criticized of the administration’s originally crafted religious exemption, lauded the decision:

We are pleased and grateful that the religious liberty and conscience protection needs of so many ministries that serve our country were appreciated enough that an early resolution of this issue was accomplished. The unity of Catholic organizations in addressing this concern was a sign of its importance.

Read the whole statement here.

Planned Parenthood Federation of America commended the administration for preserving women’s access to preventive health services:

In the face of a misleading and outrageous assault on women’s health, the Obama administration has reaffirmed its commitment to ensuring all women will have access to birth control coverage, with no costly co-pays, no additional hurdles, and no matter where they work.

We believe the compliance mechanism does not compromise a woman’s ability to access these critical birth control benefits.

Read the whole statement here.

Religious liberty expert Melissa Rogers, former chair of President Obama’s inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, who criticized the original religious exemption as too narrow, said:

Given the White House description of the revised rule, it both resolves the religious liberty concerns and respects the interests of Americans who would like to have these important health benefits. President Obama and his administration deserve great credit for implementing a solution that honors free exercise rights and fairness. I deeply appreciate the fact that the White House has taken the religious community’s concerns so seriously.

Read the whole statement here.

Catholic United executive director James Salt said:

Catholics United has been calling on both sides of this heated debate to work towards today’s win-win solution. President Obama has shown us that he is willing to rise above the partisan fray to deliver an actual policy solution that both meets the health care needs of all employees and respects the religious liberty of Catholic institutions.

I am eager to see the response of the Catholic bishops, and I hope and pray in their wisdom they see the value of finding a solution. If the bishops are unwilling to recognize the value of compromise, I suspect their opposition is more about playing politics than serving the needs of the people.

Read the whole statement here.

Such a broad range of support demonstrates real common ground, shows that preventive health care and religious liberty are reconcilable priorities, and shows just how ridiculous are the accusations that President Obama is waging a “war on religion.”

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