As I reported last week, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has launched a campaign to expand the concept of “religious liberty,” a move intended in part to exempt Catholic and other religious organizations from legal requirements, or, put another way, to permit Catholic organizations to discriminate based on religious belief.
One key example of late is the USCCB’s complaint that the Department of Health and Human Services’ refusal to grant it a contract to provide services to sex trafficking victims was a case of religious discrimination. USCCB will not refer sex trafficking victims for reproductive health services, a requirement of the contract.
In another pressing example, the USCCB is putting pressure on the White House to broaden the exemption that religious organizations have from the requirement under the Affordable Care Act that employer-provided health insurance cover contraceptives. Churches already are exempt, but the USCCB wants a broader exemption to protect the “consciences” of employers and employees. The New York Times reported this weekend that the mandate was a discussion topic when Obama met recently with the USCCB president, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who “said Mr. Obama was ‘very open to the sensitivities of the Catholic community.'”
Democrats, not surprisingly, are alarmed that the Obama administration might back off a requirement approved by the HHS this past summer. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ approval of the requirement, though, was yet one more reason for religious right figures to target her as an enemy of religion. The columnist Michael Gerson reflected this view in his column about the sex trafficking contract, complaining that she is “an outspoken pro-choice Catholic” who “has a long history of conflict with Catholic authorities.”
The prospect of an Obama administration cave-in on this issue is not just alarming because contraceptive coverage is a real health need that shouldn’t be exempted from coverage because certain religions are opposed to it. It is nonsensical from a political standpoint. For one thing, although his recent pick to head up the Democratic National Committee’s religious outreach for the 2012 campaign, the Rev. Derrick Harkins, is anti-choice, Harkins has been outspoken on reaching “common ground” on abortion, including making birth control available. (To be clear, though, the Bishops’ invocation of the “religious liberty” issue could change the equation). But more crucially, as Laurie Goodstein reported in her piece about the Bishops’ recent meeting in Baltimore, at which their new religious liberty initiative was announced, few Catholics seem to be informed on the specifics of the Bishops’ positions on such matters. According to a recent study by Fordham University, only 16 percent of Catholics had even heard of the Bishops’ election guide, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” and only 3 percent had even read it.
That 3 percent figure, incidentally, is roughly the same percentage of Catholics who follow the Bishops’ position on reproductive matters and don’t use contraceptives.
Obama needs to be attuned to the differences between listening to the concerns of Catholics and listening to the concerns of the Bishops.
CORRECTION: The original version of this post, due to jet lag, a hacking cough, and insufficient coffee, reversed the figure on birth control. Roughly three percent of American Catholics follow the Vatican teaching by not using birth control. Sorry for the brain freeze.