President Obama Birth Control Compromise Divides Catholic Leaders


When President Barack Obama first announced the federal rule requiring most faith-based employers to pay for contraception health coverage, most Roman Catholic groups geared for battle. But prominent progressive Catholics broke with Catholic bishops and Republican lawmakers on the issue Wednesday, saying Obama had won them over when he revised the rules to allow faith-based institutions to opt out of providing the coverage.

Stephen Schneck, director of Catholic University of America's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies, stood shoulder to shoulder with university President John Garvey against Obama's initial decision, which would have required Catholic schools to provide contraception coverage with no co-pay to employees against its religious teachings. Schneck told reporters on Wednesday that he "worked as hard as [he] could to get the administration to pay attention" to the concerns of the Catholic bishops and expand the religious exemption.

The revised rule Obama announced Friday, which shifts the cost of contraceptive coverage to insurers when the faith-based employer morally objects, has "by and large resolved" his religious liberty concerns, Schneck said.

"The announcement on Friday creates mechanisms to create even greater distance between Catholic institutions and contraception," Schneck said. "I feel completely satisfied." He said he still has some concerns about self-insured religious groups, but believed the Obama administration would find a fair way to resolve that issue.

Schneck said he was "definitely not" speaking on behalf of his employer, Catholic University. "I've discerned to speak differently than my president in that regard," he said.

His boss, the university president, was a vocal opponent of the initial birth control rule. Garvey signed a letter calling Obama's compromise "a cheap accounting trick" and will testify against it at a congressional hearing on religious liberty on Thursday.

Sister Anne Curtis, a spokeswoman for the 3,800-member religious order Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, also broke with her superiors, the Catholic clergy, on the issue. "We were pleased when adjustments were made in the new requirements that would ensure conscience protections for religious institutions such as ourselves," she said.

The Catholic bishops, traditionally more conservative than nuns on women's health issues, wholly reject the president's accommodation, arguing that self-insured religious employers will still be forced to pay for contraception. They want the mandate rescinded in its entirety, so that even a Catholic person who owns a non-religious business can refuse to cover contraception for his or her employees.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a law firm that protects the interests of religious groups, used the same arguments as Planned Parenthood opponents, saying that "money is fungible." Many religious organizations may still object to paying an insurance company that will provide contraception to its employees for free, even if the employer is not directly paying.

“This is a false ‘compromise’ designed to protect the president’s re-election chances, not to protect the right of conscience,” said Hannah Smith, senior legal counsel for The Becket Fund, in a statement.

Religious conservatives such as Garvey and Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., will gather Thursday for a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing not-so-subtly titled, “Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?” Congressional Republicans, including Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), are pushing measures that would repeal the birth control policy entirely on behalf of religious organizations.

Despite the continued beating Obama is taking from a few religious groups, he has won the support of the one Catholic organization that employs more than 750,000 people and is arguably the most heavily affected by the birth control mandate. The Catholic Health Association, the nation's largest group of nonprofit health systems, considered Obama's accommodation a victory.

"We are pleased and grateful that the religious liberty and conscience protection needs of so many ministries that serve our country were appreciated enough that an early resolution of this issue was accomplished," said Sister Carol Keehan, president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association. "This difference has at times been uncomfortable, but it has helped our country sort through an issue that has been important throughout the history of our great democracy."

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