Bishops, Republicans Get Served

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, announces the revamp of his contraception policy requiring religious institutions to fully pay for birth control, Friday, Feb. 10, 2012, in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington.

Like my colleague Scott Lemieux, I was a little worried when the Obama administration announced that it would present a compromise on its recent decision to require full contraceptive coverage from employers, including those with religious affiliations, like Catholic hospitals and schools. It’s not as if the public is opposed to the decision—as I noted yesterday, 55 percent of Americans agree that “employers should be required to provide their employees with health-care plans that cover contraception and birth control at no cost.” This includes 58 percent of Catholics and 52 percent of Catholic voters. Anything that moved away from the administration’s prior commitment to full coverage for women would be a capitulation to a small minority of politically charged religious authorities.

As it turns out, the administration was serious about its commitment to women’s health care and refrained from making serious concessions. According to the revised policy, employees will still receive contraceptive coverage at no extra cost, directly provided by the insurance company, instead of the employer. What’s more, it guarantees that employees can receive their contraception without interference from employers or insurers. In other words, this allows Catholic hospitals and other organizations to maintain their distance from birth control, while still providing birth-control coverage for women. Indeed, as Scott points out, Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Hospital Association, announced that she was “very pleased" with the agreement.

Which is to say that while the initial roll out for this policy may have been flawed, the administration has played the politics very well. All week, Catholic bishops—and their Republican allies—have roared against the policy. House Speaker John Boehner denounced the move as “an unambiguous attack on religious freedom in our country,” while GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney used it as part of his pitch to voters: “We must have a president who is willing to protect America’s first right, a right to worship God.” The bishops themselves have moved the goalposts from a broader exemption, to complete repeal of the policy and a promise of religious exemption for any Catholic who owns a business. “If I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell, I’d be covered by the mandate,” said Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The opponents of the rule have begun to overreach at the same time that the administration has offered to accommodate their objections. Not only does this make them look unreasonable—to an already unsupportive public—it also undermines their case, which is that this is an attack on religious liberty. If the issue is religious practice, then they should be willing to accept an agreement that preserves their freedom, while providing for women’s health.

But conservatives have completely rejected the administration’s overtures. Republican Senator Roy Blunt has declared that unless the mandate is reversed, there is no “compromise” on religious freedom. Likewise, Marjorie Dannenfelser—president of the anti-choice Susan B. Anthony List—said in a press release that “forcing insurance companies to be directly responsible for providing abortion-inducing drugs and forcing religious organizations to cooperate is an assault on religious freedom.”

In other words, the intense reaction against the administration’s accommodation has revealed the extent to which this actually is a fight over contraception and not a question of religious liberty. And in a fight over birth control—which is favored by the vast majority of Americans—the administration has the higher ground.