Democratic Women Walk Out of “Freedom of Religion” Hearing

Democratic Representatives Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia and Carolyn Maloney of New York have walked out of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, titled, “Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State: Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?

Speaking to reporters outside the hearing room, Holmes Norton lashed out against Republican Chairman Darrell Issa’s refusal to let the Democrats call any witnesses. All of Issa’s witnesses are opposed to the contraception coverage requirement and are testifying about Issa’s framing of the hearing: that it’s about religious freedom, not health care.

Ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the son of two Pentecostal ministers, accused Issa of “promoting a conspiracy theory that the federal government is conducting a ‘war’ on religion.” Cummings added that “The pill has had a profound impact on their well being, far more than any man in this room could know.”

Maloney, before she left the hearing, took on Issa in her statement: “What I want to know is, where are the women? I look at this panel, and I don’t see one single individual representing the tens of millions of women across the country who want and need insurance coverage for basic preventive health care services, including family planning. Where are the women?”

One of the witnesses Issa refused to allow the Democrats to call was Sandra Fluke, a student at Georgetown University (where Holmes Norton teaches at the law school) , which Holmes Norton called “the foremost Catholic university in the country.

Had she been permitted to testify, said Fluke, she would have discussed the stories of Georgetown students* who are denied birth control coverage, including a woman who has lost an ovary because she was even denied coverage for pill not even needed for contraceptive, but for medical purposes. As a result of not having the proper medical care, the woman, now 32 years old, lost an ovary and is experiencing an early menopause, threatening her ability to have children.

Issa denied Fluke the opportunity to testify because she was “not qualified.” She said, “women impacted by the [policy] are the most qualified to speak.” Those voices, she said, “were silenced today.”

Holmes Norton, an attorney, said the continuing “moral” objections to the coverage requirement are eliminated by the Obama accommodation of last Friday, which she called an “extraordinary win-win” because the objecting institutions will not have to pay for the coverage because that cost was shifted to the insurance companies. Now, she said, their continuing objection “is to women who work for them getting contraception.”

She accused Issa, who engaged in a lengthy disquisition at the outset of the hearing, claiming that the Democrats did not comply with House rules for placing witnesses on the list. Holmes Norton called Issa’s excuses “a pretzel-twisting of the rules to deny us witnesses” that is reminiscent of “autocratic regimes.”

As I write this (about an hour into the hearing) Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), who is Catholic and supported the original, pre-accommodation regulation, has arrived in the hearing room. Issa acknowledged her presence but has not yet given her the opportunity to read a statement or question witnesses. 

UPDATE: Maloney did return to the hearing room and questioned witnesses. I’ll detail that later.

FURTHER UPDATE AND CORRECTION: Maloney and DeLauro did question the witnesses. Some additional detail to the information above, Fluke is a law student at Georgetown, as is the woman whose medical condition she discussed. (I originally reported she was an employee.) Fluke is affiliated with Law Students for Reproductive Justice.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email