Talking Points on Freedom of Conscience and Federal Funds

In an op-ed in Politico, Catholics for Choice president Jon O’Brien and NARAL Pro-Choice America president Nancy Keenan question whether the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has a double standard when it comes to how to segregate public funds from private funds. On the one hand, the USCCB insisted on the Stupak amendment, claiming that accounting arrangements in the Capps amendment to the health care reform bill were inadequate to ensure that public money would not be used to cover an abortion. Yet on the other hand, many of its affiliates receive federal monies and grants, which they must segregate from private funds. The federal monies cannot constitutionally be used for inherently sectarian actvities, while they are free to use their private funds as they like.

In both the case of federal funding for abortion and separation of church and state, the conservative side makes broad, moral arguments for their position, while the more progressive side makes technical ones.

Over the summer, after the Capps amendment went into the House bill that came out of the Energy and Commerce Committee, the religious right began complaining about how it was a “phony compromise” that did not ensure that federal funds would not be used for abortion. The pro-choice side typically came back with technical arguments about how yes, it really did.

That was because even though the pro-choice side believed it moral for abortion coverage to be in health care reform, they believed they needed to compromise with the anti-choice side to make the overall bill palatable to them and ensure its passage. That locked them out of a broad argument that abortion coverage is moral; they were backed into a corner of having to defend the fix they reluctantly agreed to in the first place as technically adequate. That’s not a very compelling argument, especially when the other side has a sweeping, moral argument that energizes their base.

Yet, as Keenan and O’Brien argue, it appears USCCB thinks it can segregate money just fine, and nobody need concern themselves that taxpayer money might go to fund inherently sectarian activity. That’s why church-state separation advocates have urged an end to direct federal aid to houses of worship; instead, they want to require houses of worship to form separate non-profits to receive federal aid. That’s something that then-candidate Obama agreed with when campaigning for his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (OFBNP), but no longer made a requirement once he put the office together.

The conservative side of this debate frames this as an issue of religious freedom; that the government should want to aid benevolent organizations; and that they should be trusted to do the right thing with the money. There’s no reason not to frame the abortion funding issue similarly: it’s an issue of a woman’s reproductive freedom and freedom of conscience; that there’s no reason why the government, in funding health care for all Americans, shouldn’t fund coverage for all medical procedures equally; and that women should be trusted to do the right thing with the money.

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