February 11, 2012

Obama and the Contraceptive Mandate

It was with some trepidation that I awaited yesterday’s announcement from President Obama concerning the modification of his plan to require religious institutions to provide free contraception to employees covered by medical plans. I had been pleased by the decision to require religious institutions other than actual churches to provide such a benefit. It seemed to be a sign that Obama might finally be staking out a position he actually believed in, rather than announcing a compromise policy and compromising with his opponents from there. Even so, the exception for churches had not been a welcome exception.

The revised policy, which relieves church-related institutions from providing contraception but makes it mandatory for their insurance companies to provide the benefit free to those desiring it, is a clever fig leaf that provides cover for all parties. Whether it will quell charges that the president is eroding religious freedom remains to be seen. Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan said, “Today’s decision to revise how individuals obtain services that are morally objectionable to religious entities and people of faith is a first step in the right direction.” I suspect that the archbishop will be seeking a second, third, and fourth step as well, however.

It remains to be seen how the president’s plan works out in particular cases. What if the religious employer is self-insured? What if the insurer is itself a church-run organization? There are other issues that may prove problematic as well.

In other words, the controversy is far from over, but this seems a good time to offer a few observations on the controversy so far.

Telling Churches What To Do

Conservatives claim to see a systematic attack on religion by the federal government; every regulation that affects religious institutions is seen as an assault on religious freedom. This, of course, is part of a cynical political strategy, not the product of any objective reality. Churches and church-related institutions must obey innumerable regulations, and they largely do so without complaint. (Many Catholic institutions are even now offering contraception in employee health plans.) In the cases in question, however, Roman Catholic bishops have made the argument that their church was being required to pay for something it considers sinful, and this was said to be an innovation.

I have a hard time keeping up with everything the Pope thinks is sinful, but, for argument’s sake, let’s assume this the innovation assertion is true as far as the federal government is concerned. (Apparently, eight states require even churches to cover contraceptives for employees, so the innovation, if it is that, is only at the federal level.) Whereas the government does make certain accommodations for religious beliefs—Quakers are allowed to be conscientious objectors, for example—it is not clear that this is required by the Constitution, the free exercise clause notwithstanding. In any case, the need to accommodate religion is certainly not absolute. If a Jewish group wished to retain the right to stone miscreants for Old Testament infractions, does anyone really think the Constitution would demand that this be allowed?

An editorial in today’s New York Times put it this way:
Nonetheless, it was dismaying to see the president lend any credence to the misbegotten notion that providing access to contraceptives violated the freedom of any religious institution. Churches are given complete freedom by the Constitution to preach that birth control is immoral, but they have not been given the right to laws that would deprive their followers or employees of the right to disagree with that teaching.
The whole notion that the government cannot compel a church to support that which it considers sinful is bogus. Even if churches themselves do not pay taxes, they collect income tax for their employees—they could pay less if employees did not have their salaries taxed—and the government surely spends that money on projects the churches consider (or should consider) sinful. (Think war and capital punishment, not to mention Planned Parenthood.)

In reality, what the Catholic bishops and their allies are demanding is not so much relief from a morally compromised situation, as a license for the church to impose its will on others. Not only should this not be allowed in the case of Catholic universities, hospitals, and the like, but it also should be disallowed for churches themselves. The exemption of churches from the obligation to provide contraception is, in reality, an unconstitutional meddling of the state in religion. The government is assisting Catholic churches in forcing its female employees to abide by Catholic doctrine on penalty of economic hardship. This is not religious freedom; it is government collusion in oppression of individual rights.


Of course, this whole controversy is about politics in one way or another. The Catholic bishops are continuing their campaign against abortion and contraception, and the Republican candidates simply have a program of disparaging everything President Obama does. Claiming that the president is an enemy of religion plays well to the Tea Party crowd. Of course, Rick Santorum is a special case. He is an über Roman Catholic who would gleefully outlaw all abortions and all contraception. Newt Gingrich is also Catholic, but, although he is anti-choice, he has not declared himself to be against family planning. Who knows what Mitt Romney really thinks, and who cares what Ron Paul thinks?

There is much that is odd about the position of the Catholic bishops, a group that has moved strongly to the right on recent years. Whereas the bishops’ position no doubt makes the Pope’s day, it is widely reported that 98% of Catholic women use birth control at some point in their lives. Catholic doctrine and Catholic practice are about as polar opposites as anyone could possibly imagine here. Catholic opinion is split on the president’s contraception mandate. If Catholic women can get over the phony war-on-religion argument, however, they are likely to be more sympathetic to the president and less sympathetic to the church’s all-male episcopate.

There is indication that President Obama has, with his latest compromise, won over Planned Parenthood and some Catholic groups, even if Catholic bishops are still trying to decide what should be their final position. The bishops should consider whether they want to damage Obama on this issue, since, sexual issues aside, Democrats are more sympathetic to traditional Catholic issues than the current crop of Republicans.

Some Democrats have criticized Obama for not anticipating the firestorm his original policy announcement created. It has been argued either that he should have been better prepared to defend his policy or that he should not have—as they see it—gratuitously offended the Catholic Church to begin with. I agree that the administration should have been better prepared to make its case for whatever its policy was going to be. I would have preferred to see the mandate applied to all employees, however, including those of individual churches.

Despite some significant accomplishments, the Obama administration has suffered from a lack of will and a misguided hopefulness that bargains can be struck with the current Congress held hostage by Tea Party ideologues. Republican presidential candidates have portrayed the president as weak and ineffective, a charge not without some basis in fact. The president has shown some rare determination in the matter of the contraception mandate, and he will do well to show, between now and November, that he is firm but reasonable.


  1. I'VE HAD ENOUGH! In this Holy War on Religion, of Religion, and by Religion, I SURRENDER! I’m a lover, not a fighter.  Instead... I’m gonna start my OWN religion, and get in on the good stuff: tax exemptions, and lots of taxpayer money to do what I want, in the name of religious liberty. Most definitely! Hey NEWT -wanna join? We’re gonna have open marriages and multiple wives and all SORTS of neat stuff that you’re just gonna love! But don’t you worry your little head Newt : we’ll have no, I repeat, NO nasty stoning of adulterers. None of that stuff. I Promise! As for SANTORUM, he just LOVES to tell other people how to live. He’ll make us a REAL fine preacher-man. In fact, we’ll make him Saint Santorum. AND fix his Google search results! As for Mr. Obama,  obviously, we’ll need to (severely) demonize him, even further. And his dog Toto too. Last but not least: MITT and RON. Hmmm. Hey, just for you two guys: we’ll insist on NO TAXES AT ALL for church members…AND human sacrifice of illegal aliens. Out with their hearts! Televised! Live! Whoooppee! WHAT A COUNTRY!  :-)
    By the way, please don’t mention the REASON that Mitt Romney’s dad was born in Mexico (i.e. The fact that Mitt’s Mormon grand-dad left the United States in the 1880’s. He went to Mexico BECAUSE laws against polygamy were passed in the U.S. ; Being a Mormon back then, Mitt’s grand-dad wanted to keep his multiple wives. Hey, who wouldn’t?) Bottom line: if we follow the “logic” of the people crying crocodile tears about a non-existent “war on religion”, then the U.S. should have allowed polygamy (and who knows what else) just because a particular religion claimed it as their cherished belief. GIVE ME A BREAK!
    Absolutely NO ONE is coming into our Churches or places of worship and trying to tell parishioners what to believe.....or forcing them to use contraception. BUT If the Bishops (and other denominations) want to continue running businesses that employ millions of people of varying faiths -or no "faith" at all- THEN they must play by the same rules and rights that other workers have and enjoy...especially if their businesses use our tax dollars (and skip paying taxes) in the process. This is not a “war on religion”. It’s a war on women and men who simply want to plan their families and control their future. Now that’s REAL religious liberty!

  2. Well, Stanchaz, I think you make it clear that there must be limits to freedom of conscience. In general, civil rights are not absolute; one right (or one person’s right) always collides with other rights at the margins.

    By the way, although I don’t see the value of polygamy, I think the Mormons got a raw deal. Just as gay marriage does not damage heterosexual marriage, neither does polygamy. It does complicate life for database designers, however.


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