The US Conference of Catholic Bishops have now either reversed field from their previous reaction to the Obama Administration’s birth control accommodation policy announced yesterday, or they’re in negotiation mode. That’s what we can make of their latest missive, laden with unnecessary bold-facing, on the birth control access issue.

The bishops made it fairly clear from the outset that they support rescinding the mandate that insurance companies include contraceptive coverage as part of their preventive services, without a co-pay, or at least that they would favor an extension of the exemption to cover pretty much anyone with a problem with birth control, including religiously affiliated or even non-affiliated institutions, insurance companies, even employees who have this coverage as part of their premium. Basically anyone who decides contraception is “immoral” should be able to opt out.

They then describe the President’s new policy, which maintains universal access to birth control for all women while creating a Rube Goldberg process whereby the religious institution is left out of the exchange between employee and insurance company on those services. They say the changes need “careful moral analysis” and that they just got the information on the changes, which suggests at least some openness to them. But then they lay out some bright lines. (I’ve eliminated the annoying bold-facing)

But we note at the outset that the lack of clear protection for key stakeholders—for self-insured religious employers; for religious and secular for-profit employers; for secular non-profit employers; for religious insurers; and for individuals—is unacceptable and must be corrected. And in the case where the employee and insurer agree to add the objectionable coverage, that coverage is still provided as a part of the objecting employer’s plan, financed in the same way as the rest of the coverage offered by the objecting employer. This, too, raises serious moral concerns […]

We note that today’s proposal continues to involve needless government intrusion in the internal governance of religious institutions, and to threaten government coercion of religious people and groups to violate their most deeply held convictions. In a nation dedicated to religious liberty as its first and founding principle, we should not be limited to negotiating within these parameters. The only complete solution to this religious liberty problem is for HHS to rescind the mandate of these objectionable services.

We will therefore continue—with no less vigor, no less sense of urgency—our efforts to correct this problem through the other two branches of government. For example, we renew our call on Congress to pass, and the Administration to sign, the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act. And we renew our call to the Catholic faithful, and to all our fellow Americans, to join together in this effort to protect religious liberty and freedom of conscience for all.

The “Respect for Rights of Conscience Act” is Sen. Roy Blunt’s bill that would expand the religious exemptions notably, as it would, according to the summary, “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.” While not as extensive as Marco Rubio’s bill, this does seem to open a gateway for virtually anyone involved in the exchange of contraceptive coverage to nix it just by saying “I have a religious objection.” Blunt tried to attach this measure to the surface transportation bill in the Senate on Thursday, but was blocked by Democrats.

The larger point is that the bishops are not going to stop with this controversy, regardless of the compromise made, and neither will Republicans. In fact, their new leader in the clubhouse for the Presidential nomination, Rick Santorum (!), thinks that insurance should not cover contraception at all.

This is untenable from a public opinion standpoint, and this really exposes the bishops and the Republican Party as out of step with the modern world. The fact that the Catholic Hospital Association jumped on board with the new policy yesterday isolates these other factions. It should be clear that only the dead-enders are on the side of the bishops on this policy, and there’s absolutely no political gain in moving toward them anymore. Not to mention the fact that the moral authority of the Catholic bishops on any policy having to do with sex is non-existent.

But just because the underlying policy is very popular and the bishops are dealing from a position of real weakness doesn’t mean they won’t succeed. I’ve seen plenty of popular policies rolled back due to manufactured outrage.

David Dayen

David Dayen