More than 500 Catholic activists from diocesan peace and justice and Catholic Charities offices across the country in Washington this week for the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering are on their way this afternoon to Capitol Hill. They will be highlighting the domestic and international policy concerns of the U.S. Catholic bishops in conversations with their home senators and house members. This time, in addition to what have become annual appeals to protect discretionary spending for unemployment benefits, foreign aid and other domestic and international discretionary spending that have become regular targets of budget hawks, the gathering’s impromptu activist army will be pushing back against what the bishop’s perceive as unconstitutional intrusion by the Obama administration on religious liberty. That conflict began in August after the release of an “interim” requirement from the Department of Health and Human Services for mandatory women’s preventive services included contraception coverage and offered a narrow conscience exemption for religious employers.
Last week President Obama tried to put the issue to rest with a “common sense accommodation” that he argues removes objecting employers from the equation, requiring insurers to offer contraception free of charge without additional premiums, referrals or plan offerings from employers. Objecting religious employers could offer health benefits which technically did not include contraception, but employees who wanted the services would be able to get them directly from the insuruer. One activist summed up the objection to the compromise: “He wants us to lie to our employers [about what is in the health plans], and he wants us to still pay for contraception.”
“The person who foots the bill is still the employer and other people paying through their premiums,” complained U.S.C.C.B. General Counsel Anthony Picarello. “The question before us remains: Can the government compel people to do something that violates their deeply held [religious] principles?
“The idea of forcing religious entities to provide [contraception] services that are widely available and inexpensive is the core absurdity.”
The “accommodation” offered by the president has now been soundly rejected by the U.S. bishops. Attending a consistory in Rome during which he will be elevated to Cardinal, New York Archbishop and U.S.C.C.B. President Timothy Dolan flatly rejected the proposal.
"We bishops are pastors, we're not politicians, and you can't compromise on principle," he said. "We're in the business of reconciliation, so it's not that we hold fast, that we're stubborn ideologues, no. But we don't see much sign of any compromise.”
"What [President Obama] offered was next to nothing. There's no change, for instance, in these terribly restrictive mandates and this grossly restrictive definition of what constitutes a religious entity," he said. "The principle wasn't touched at all."
Indeed U.S.C.C.B. General Counsel Anthony Picarello told the gathering’s participants as they prepped for their hill visits, that the language of the new Health and Human Services requirement for contraception services and the exemption it offered was published unaltered in the federal register on Feb. 13, retaining the narrow definition for conscience exemption which the bishops object to and a government authority in validating the religious identity of institutions which perform secular roles. “They stated an intention to issue more regulations” clarifying the mandate, Picarello said, but there is no guarantee such additional regulations will be added. “Something that makes us even less confident” in the outcome, Picarello said, is the administration’s desire to put off a final decision until after the “point of political accountability,” the November election.
"What happened on friday," Picarello said, "reshuffled the deck, but it did not change the hand that was dealt."
In American life, he said, the concept of religious liberty "as a mutual understanding has been presumed for too long. And now that it’s been put to the test, it appears many don’t understand it.
“We need a legislative fix; [it’s] the only clean solution to this,” he added.
That legislative fix is already in the works, and the Catholic activists deploying from the social ministry gathering were asked to urge their representatives in Congress to support the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, introduced by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb. The act amends the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) “to permit a health plan to decline coverage of specific items and services that are contrary to the religious beliefs of the sponsor, issuer, or other entity offering the plan or the purchaser or beneficiary (in the case of individual coverage) without penalty” and “declares that such plans are still considered to: (1) be providing the essential health benefits package or preventive health services, (2) be a qualified health plan, and (3) have fulfilled other requirements under PPACA.”
Dolan said the legislation would produce an "ironclad law simply saying that no administrative decrees of the federal government can ever violate the conscience of a religious believer individually or religious institutions." The U.S.C.C.B.’s Kathy Saile, Director of Domestic Social Development, said the legislation would mean that religious institutions would not be susceptible to further regulatory intrusion on this matter.
The controversy promises to be a political football for the balance of the election season and has proved to be a source of contention within the church. After initially siding with the bishops against the administration, Sister Carol Keehan, CEO and President of the Catholic Health Association found herself again at odds with the U.S.C.C.B. over an Obama administration initiative. She welcomed the “compromise” offered by the president on Feb. 10, praising "a resolution ... that protects the religious liberty and conscience rights of Catholic institutions.”
Dolan said he e-mailed Keehan the same day to tell her that he was "disappointed that she had acted unilaterally, not in concert with the bishops.
"She's in a bind," Dolan said. "When she's talking to [H.H.S. Secretary Kathleen] Sebelius and the president of the United States, in some ways, these are people who are signing the checks for a good chunk of stuff that goes on in Catholic hospitals. It's tough for her to stand firm. Understandably, she's trying to make sure that anything possible, any compromise possible, that would allow the magnificent work of Catholic health care to continue, she's probably going to be innately more open to than we would."
The president’s accommodation was also welcomed by the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Catholic lobby Network. Liberal Catholics who supported the bishops initially now seem uneasy by what they perceive to be efforts by the bishops to "move the goalposts" and extend the religious liberty argument beyond the parameters of religious institutional employers to include individual employer and even employee objectors on conscience grounds. Some suspect a concerted effort to put Obama in a no-win situation on contraception that could contribute to another no-win condition come November.
The president has said that he can go no further on the matter, while at the same time noting that he intended to continue consulting religious leaders about implementation. The election season is still young, however. A survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Feb. 8-12 finds the American public closely divided over the H.H.S. policy. Among the approximately six-in-10 Americans (62 percent) who have heard about the rule, 48 percent support an exemption to the rule for religious institutions if they object to the use of contraceptives, and 44 percent say they should be required to cover contraceptives like other employers.
Perhaps of most concern to the administration are swing voting Catholics, 55 percent of Catholics “who have heard at least a little about the issue,” favor giving religious institutions an exemption, while 39 percent oppose exemptions. White evangelical Protestants, by an even larger margin—68 percent to 22 percent—favor giving religious institutions an exemption. White mainline Protestants are divided (44 percent favor an exemption, 46 percent are opposed). Pew reports: “By contrast, a majority, 55 percent, of the religiously unaffiliated who have heard about the issue say religious institutions that object to the use of contraceptives should be required to cover them like other institutions, while 39 percent favor giving an exemption to these institutions.”