Why Obama’s Compromise With Catholic Bishops Was a Bad Idea

President Obama met with Pope Francis at the Vatican today and discussed “the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection” in the United States, according to a statement from the Vatican. Did Francis give Obama the dressing down on the contraceptive mandate that conservatives were longing for?

That doesn’t sound like the amiable Francis’ style. But it was also unlikely that he would let the issue go untouched, especially since in February he asserted his concern with the issue of the Catholic identity of nonprofits like universities and hospitals when he urged a delegation from Notre Dame University to be “uncompromising witness of Catholic universities to the church’s moral teaching, and the defense of her freedom.”

But it’s important to remember, in the words of E.J. Dionne, that Obama’s attempt to find a compromise to the bishops’ objections to the mandate was a “clear statement that President Obama never wanted this fight.” It was the bishops who turned an innocuous effort to extend contraceptive access to more women into the cornerstone of their “religious liberty” fight. 

Tuesday’s oral arguments in the Hobby Lobby case show why the Obama administration should never have acquiesced to the demands of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and created a broader exemption to the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act as it allowed Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood to argue that a similar accommodation could just as easily be extended to for-profit employers who object to contraception.

Patricia Miller is the author of Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church. Her work on the intersection of sex, religion, and politics has appeared in The Nation, Ms., and Huffington Post. She was the editor of Conscience magazine and the editor-in-chief of the National Journal’s health care briefings.

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