The announcement today from the Obama administration that it is granting a more robust accommodation for religious institutions who object to providing contraception coverage is a sensible move. The values of protecting women’s health and the conscience rights of religious employers should not be in conflict.
The provision that nearly all employers must provide contraceptive services under the federal health care reform law has sparked a long, messy fight between the Obama administration, Catholic bishops and some conservative evangelicals. This fight is far from over. A dozen separate legal challenges to the administration’s mandate are now winding through the courts. Because judges have reached different conclusions, the U.S. Supreme Court will likely make the final call.
The most significant news from today’s announcement is that the administration’s “four-part test” of what constitutes a “religious employer” — a major sticking point for Catholic universities, charities and hospitals — has been scrapped for a simpler IRS definition. Under the original proposal, employers could be exempt from the contraception mandate only if their purpose was to inculcate religious values, they primarily employed those who shared their religious tenets, primarily served those who shared their religious beliefs and were a nonprofit under federal tax law. The first three parts of that definition were a big problem for religiously affiliated institutions like Catholic hospitals, universities and charities. For Catholics, medical institutions and charities are not tangential to a religious commitment, but central to putting faith into practice. Respected Catholic organizations like the Catholic Health Association, which supported the health care reform law and has distanced itself from the strident rhetoric of some bishops had been urging the administration to make this fix. At the same time, the administration’s proposals announced today, which are open to a 60-day public comment period, will still ensure women have access to contraception coverage without a co-pay. This is a victory for women’s health and the conscience rights of religious employers.
It will take time for various religious organizations to digest the details of today’s announcement, and tensions won’t disappear overnight. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, put out a brief initial statement saying bishops “welcome the opportunity to study the proposed regulations closely.”
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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.
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Bishop Stephen Blaire, who previously stood up to a conservative journalist trying to soften his critique of the Ryan budget, is speaking up again about right-wing groups trying to “co-opt” the bishops.
In an interview with America magazine’s Kevin Clarke, Bishop Blaire talks about the bishops’ religious liberty campaign and his concerns about public perceptions of it:
Bishop Blaire explained he was worried that some national groups appear to be seizing on the issue and transforming the dispute over religious liberty into a political fight.
“I am concerned that in addressing the H.H.S. mandate,” he said, “that it be clear that what we are dealing with is a matter of religious liberty and the intrusion of government into the church and that it not be perceived as a woman’s issue or a contraceptive issue.
“I think there are different groups that are trying to co-opt this and make it into political issue, and that’s why we need to have a deeper discussion as bishops.”
Bishop Blaire believes discussions with the Obama administration toward a resolution of the dispute could be fruitful even as alternative remedies are explored. He worried that some groups “very far to the right” are trying to use the conflict as “an anti-Obama campaign.”
Bishop Blaire makes an excellent point. While many defenders of the bishops dismiss any charges of partisan electoral motivation, it’s important to remember that the bishops aren’t acting in an apolitical bubble.
Both the Republican Party and Religious Right groups are piggybacking on the bishops’ efforts for partisan ends. In some cases, these parallel efforts appear to be intertwined when partisan groups coordinate shared events and Bishops making thinly veiled electoral endorsements.
The Church does need to be very careful to separate out what it sees as disagreements on specific policy issues from the sweeping electoral narrative about the “War on Religion.” Good on Bishop Blaire for calling out this dangerous dynamic. Hopefully more of his fellow bishops will join him in publicly rejecting partisan politicization of sensitive issues.
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A few weeks ago conservative wunderkind Rep. Paul Ryan faced scrutiny from nearly 90 Georgetown professors for distorting Catholic teaching to justify his draconian budget proposal. Now, Catholic conservatives are outraged that Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius will be speaking at the university on Friday as part of several weekend graduation ceremonies.
Sebelius is at the center of a controversy over an Obama administration policy that requires birth control to be covered at no cost under preventative care provisions of the health care reform law.
The Cardinal Newman Society, which acts as a self-appointed watchdog for Catholic orthodoxy on college campuses, CatholicVote.org and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty are all circulating petitions urging Georgetown President John DeGioia to withdraw the invitation to Secretary Sebelius.
Since these groups seem more intent on building walls around Catholic campuses and insulating students from the supposed dangers of diverse perspectives, it’s clearly too much to expect them to applaud a Catholic university for inviting two high-profile Catholics from different political parties and ideological perspectives within a few weeks.
Instead of a “scandal,” I think many Catholics who take their faith seriously and believe strongly in the importance of Catholic identity view it as a healthy sign that Georgetown recognizes the real world is about engaging with people who hold different perspectives – not creating a fortress where we hide from them.
A few important facts to help temper the Catholic right tempest. Sec. Sebelius is not the commencement speaker. She will not receive an honorary degree. As Georgetown President John J. DeGoia explained, she was chosen by students and will offer some reflections and encouraging remarks during an awards ceremony. She has not been invited to pontificate about Catholic teaching, abortion or contraception.
Unlike Rep. Paul Ryan, Sec. Sebelius has not been making the rounds defending her policy positions in specifically Catholic terms. Nor does she claim that her views on contraception and abortion are shared by Catholic bishops. In contrast, Ryan argues that cutting food stamps, health care for the poor and an array of safety net programs that Catholic bishops are warning him to protect are policy positions explicitly inspired by his Catholic faith.
Despite this, the Georgetown professors who chided Ryan over his Catholic defense of Darwinian economic policies did not call on the university president to pull the invitation. In fact, unlike the Newman Society and Catholic right activists they welcomed him to campus and used a civil tone that should be a model for how to disagree without descending to personal attacks.
Criticism of Sec. Sebelius’s pro-choice views is certainly legitimate from a Catholic perspective. I understand why some Catholics might disagree with Georgetown’s decision. But elevating the worst of McCarthy-era witch hunts and censorship into a virtue is a poor lesson for students about to enter a world where every bit of their faith and reason will be needed. Defending Catholic identity should not have to mean that intellectual engagement and civil discourse are viewed as signs of weakness that erode our faith.
Photo credit: Eric Bridiers, Fotopedia
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Reading the USCCB’s statement on religious freedom from last week, I was struck by this line in particular:
…as Christians of various traditions we object to a “naked public square,” stripped of religious arguments and religious believers. We do not seek a “sacred public square” either, which gives special privileges and benefits to religious citizens. Rather, we seek a civil public square, where all citizens can make their contribution to the common good. At our best, we might call this an American public square.
This characterization matches the Bishops’ consistent talking point that the current debate is not about the details of birth control policy, but rather about whether religious freedom should exist. The implication, of course, is that anyone who disagrees with their particular interpretation of this policy is actually objecting to the First Amendment.
But this is a false dichotomy. Yes, there are some people who think the public square should be “stripped of religious arguments and religious believers,” but it’s hardly an overwhelming view, and it’s certainly not the view of many of us who have offered nuanced critiques of the Bishops’ position. To suggest as much is to simply dismiss legitimate questions without answering them.
Even more interesting though, is the second part of the quote in which the Bishops alternately reject the idea of a “sacred public square” that gives “special privileges” to religious citizens. But this is exactly the language many perceptive observers use to characterize the Bishops’ position. Ed Kilgore lays it out well:
What the bishops are actually seeking is not “freedom” but a sort of unwritten concordat—a broad zone of immunity from laws they choose to regard as offensive. Now there is nothing terribly unusual or inherently outrageous about this desire; Vatican diplomacy for centuries has focused on the establishment of such arrangements—though typically written rather than plenary—with a wide array of governments. It’s the idea that this sort of arrangement involves “freedom” rather than frankly acknowledged special privileges that’s novel. [emphasis added]
The heart of the matter, of course, is defining what exactly is a “special privilege” (and subsequently when should they be granted). Is any request for an exemption from an otherwise generally applicable law special? Or is it, as the Bishops seem to say, only descriptive of exceptions that fall outside of the scope of those they choose to designate as matters of religious freedom?
In either case it’s clear that the issue is not as simple as the Bishops portray it to be. As the Blunt amendment debate revealed, religious freedom as an unlimited principle is an untenable solution. But neither are its limits self-evident. As the editors at Commonweal identify in their editorial on this statement, “Church-state relations are complicated, requiring the careful weighing of competing moral claims. The USCCB’s statement fails to acknowledge that fact.”
Negotiating this tricky balance is the messy work of democracy. It’s fair to take issues with particular attempts to strike that balance, but it’s unfair to broadly claim that those who disagree with you object to religious freedom at large.
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