Like many others, EJ Dionne cheered yesterday’s announcement from the White House on contraception coverage, saying “both sides of this controversy ought to take some satisfaction from the outcome.” The Washington Post’s editorial called it a “win-win.” Perhaps that’s how they see it, but that’s not how the US Conference of Catholic Bishops sees it.

Yesterday, the USCCB offered two press releases on the announcement. The first was a cautious one, saying in essence “we appreciate the first step, but we need time to look at the details.” The second and longer statement was much more blunt and disdainful. For instance, with regard to the changes announced yesterday, they say this (emphasis in the original):

. . . 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.

IOW, our original objection still stands, say the bishops. Indeed, they are also pushing to expand the battle, noting other objections not addressed by yesterday’s changes. They want anyone — insurers, secular businesses, and individuals — to be able to exempt themselves from paying for contraception. They cloak their arguments in religious liberty, but the issue is power and control.

The first amendment’s protection of religious liberty is not a license for religious organizations or individuals to disregard any law or regulation they don’t like. For example . . . 

If a church wants to build an extension on their building for a new sanctuary, they have to abide by city zoning ordinances. They can’t just say “Freedom of Religion!” and build wherever they want. Similarly, they have to get building permits. They can’t shout “First Amendment” and start digging a foundation and putting up walls, stringing electrical wire, and running the pipes for the plumbing. They can’t tell their janitors “sorry, but the first amendment means we don’t have to pay unemployment insurance for you.” Churches that run soup kitchen operations have to deal with health inspectors. And, as a police officer so kindly pointed out to me a while back, clergy are not given a religious liberty exemption that allows them to run a red light simply because they are going to make a hospital visit.

Religious hospitals have to abide by NIH guidelines for research, state and federal laws on handling controlled substances, and thousands of other laws and regulations. They are obligated to accept all patients in need of emergency care, and if a drag queen shows up with his lover alongside, both bleeding profusely after having been beaten, the hospital can’t say “Sorry, but our church disapproves of homosexuality and the first amendment says we can show you to the curb.”

Laurie Goodstein at the NY Times, writing before the compromise was announced, noted that while Catholics were making the religious freedom argument about their hospitals and universities, other mainstream religious groups were fine with covering contraception:

The public policy arm of the United Methodist Church, which like the Catholic Church, runs hospitals and universities across the country, has applauded the mandate to cover contraception. And a coalition of mainline Protestants, Muslims and Reform and Conservative Jews released a declaration on Wednesday supporting the ruling.

The Rev. Debra W. Haffner, executive director of the Religious Institute, a liberal interfaith group that works on sexuality issues and that wrote the declaration, said, “The mainstream religious voice has supported contraception for decades, at least for the last 40 years.”

But the White House didn’t try to make the case that religious freedom has its limits. They simply bought into the USCCB’s framing of the issue. Indeed, the Washington Post’s story about yesterday’s announcement says

The announcement caps a frenetic month in which the administration often sent mixed signals and appeared caught off guard by the political fallout as even allies questioned its handling of the issue.

Sorry, but anyone who says they were “caught off guard” by this is either (a) an idiot or (b) asleep.

In 2004, various bishops spoke against giving communion to John Kerry over his abortion views and voting record. During the 2008 election, the conservative Catholic bishops were up in arms about people voting for Obama because of their perception that he would open the floodgates to abortion. As John Allen wrote at NCR shortly after Obama’s election and the Nov 2008 meeting of the USCCB:

America’s Catholic bishops have been talking about abortion and politics at least since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, but their discussion this week in Baltimore had a special sense of urgency – driven by what many bishops and their pro-life advisors regard as a looming nightmare scenario under the new Obama administration in the “Freedom of Choice Act,” or FOCA.

Candidate Obama pledged to support the Freedom of Choice Act, which was first introduced in congress in 2004 but to date has not made it out of the committee stage. It acknowledges a “fundamental right” to abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy and at subsequent stages for health reasons. It would also bar discrimination in the exercise of the right “in the regulation or provision of benefits, facilities, services or information.”

Fast forward from 2008 to the health care debates. What was the last big sticking issue? Abortion. Who was in the middle of that fight at the very end? The USCCB. They leaned on Stupak HARD to get what they wanted, and were quite angry when he (from their perspective) caved on getting Hyde into law and settled for an executive order. It’s an ugly story.

The bishops are not stupid, nor asleep. They are, in fact, eminently predictable. Why it is news that the bishops were prepared for this fight is beyond me.

And why anyone thinks that yesterday’s compromise would solve anything is similarly beyond me.


photo h/t to William F. Yurasko



I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.