By Cary McMullen
So it is about contraception, after all.
In fighting insurance coverage for contraceptives under the new healthcare law, Catholic bishops and some Republican politicians repeatedly said they objected to a government mandate because it infringed on religious liberty.
A proposed federal rule to require religiously affiliated nonprofits to provide contraceptive coverage violates the Catholic belief that contraception is immoral, the bishops protested. Although use of contraceptives is almost universal, even among Catholics, the bishops appealed to the public on the grounds the rule was about violating religious freedom, not contraception.
“When the government tampers with a freedom so fundamental to the life of our nation, one shudders to think what lies ahead,” Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote in the Wall Street Journal.
It worked. Even moderate Democrats and liberal Catholics urged Obama to accommodate the bishops’ objections.
And so last week, the Obama Administration announced the rule would be changed. While religious nonprofits must still provide health insurance, coverage of contraceptives would be offered only to employees who ask for it. However, the charities would not have to pay for it. Instead, insurance companies would pick up the tab since contraceptives are cheap, while pregnancy is expensive.
So the bishops’ concerns about religious freedom were placated, right? Guess again.
In an internal memo from five senior bishops, and later in a statement issued by the U.S. Conference, they still objected. A chief complaint is the government’s distinction between the church as a religious organization, which is exempt from the rule, and the church’s charities, which employ non-Catholic workers and serve the public.
The bishops argue, correctly, that the church’s charities are extensions of itself, undertaken out of religious convictions, so there should be no distinction. But now that the church’s charities are also exempt from the rule, why continue the fight?
The answer is that the rule might raise religious liberty issues for others, too. “Our concern remains strong that the government is creating its own definitions of who is ‘religious enough’ for full protection,” the bishops wrote.
And so was drawn a new battle line: business owners who are devout Catholics and object to the rule would not be exempt from it. “Secular employers must provide coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortion inducing drugs,” they wrote with disapproval.
In other words, it’s no longer about the church. Religious liberty is window dressing for the bishops’ real objection, birth control.
It’s worth noting that Catholic charities do a lot of good for the public, and they do so out of sincere Christian faith. It’s also true that some on the left have nothing but contempt for the Catholic Church and would just as soon force-feed birth-control pills to Catholic schoolgirls.
That said, the Obama administration has addressed the most important religious liberty concerns about contraception coverage.
A Public Religion Research Institute poll showed that 55 percent of Americans, and 52 percent of Catholics, supported the federal rule, even before it was softened. Bishops who insist the accommodation does not satisfy all their objections will be seen as the worst kind of religious extremists and play into the hands of those eager to portray them that way.
Republicans who used the bishops’ complaints for their own partisan purposes may continue to rail about Obama’s “war on religious liberty,” but it’s unlikely we will see them standing beside the bishops as they complain about contraception.
Because contraception is what this fight is now about.
Cary McMullen is a journalist and editor who lives in Lakeland. He can be reached by email here.