New Round, Old Fight: Why The Religious Right Rejects The Obama Compromise Over Birth Control

No matter what the Obama administration does on contraceptive access, far-right religious groups are never satisfied.

I continue to be amazed that in the year 2013 our nation continues to grapple with the issue of access to contraceptives, a matter most advanced nations laid to rest long ago.

On Friday, the Obama administration made another attempt to address the concerns of conservative religious employers who say they don’t want to provide birth control for employees. Once again, it’s not going well.

A little history: When the Affordable Care Act was passed, it contained provisions allowing the administration to issue regulations concerning what type of health care coverage employers would be required to offer. Contraceptives are included in the baseline care package because so many Americans use birth control, and it plays an important role in preventative care. (Plus, it has medicinal uses.)

Under the original proposal, houses of worship were exempt from the requirement to include birth control coverage. But religiously affiliated nonprofits such as colleges and hospitals – that hire people of many faiths, serve the general public and often are government-subsidized – were required to provide insurance plans that included contraception. Businesses and other for-profit enterprises were required to do as well.

The Catholic bishops and the Religious Right responded to this arrangement by filing a slew of lawsuits.

On Friday, the administration offered the details of a compromise. The proposed new rule makes sure employees at religious nonprofits have access to birth control but provides an additional buffer between the church-related institutions and contraceptive coverage. Insurance companies would pick up the tab for contraception and would do the work of notifying employees of religiously affiliated institutions that they are eligible under a separate, individual policy – one that is provided wholly by the insurance company.

That’s still not good enough for some on the right. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the Family Research Council and several anti-abortion groups promptly attacked the new proposal.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has yet to weigh in yet. The bishops say they are studying the proposal. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne is hopeful that the church hierarchy will accept the plan and let the nation move on.

I’m less optimistic.

The fact is, the administration is bending over backwards to appease these religious groups. Obama and officials at the Department of Health and Human Services have gone out of their way to make sure that aggressive sectarian lobbies aren’t offended by something that has never been any of these clerics’ business: whether people choose to use birth control.

Yet no matter what the Obama team does, these far-right religious groups are never satisfied.

We need to take a step back and take a deeper look at what’s really going on here. As I noted in a story I wrote about this issue last year, the bishops, aided by some allies in the fundamentalist Protestant community, have long opposed birth control. (Most fundamentalists don’t oppose all contraceptives, but do single out some kinds they consider to be “abortifacients.”)

Prior to 1965, these groups were powerful enough to put laws in place in some states banning the sale and distribution of contraceptives – for anyone, even married couples. The Supreme Court struck these measures down (as they applied to married couples) in a landmark ruling called Griswold v. Connecticut.

Religious zealots are still fighting the issues raised by Griswold. They lost that case badly – and certainly they’ve lost in the court of public opinion since then – but the health care battle gave them new life, and they ran with it.

An issue that had been dormant for many years suddenly sprang to life. It’s now being seriously argued that an individual’s private decision to use birth control somehow offends the alleged religious liberty rights – and the “conscience” – of giant corporations. The most amazing thing about this argument is that some courts are taking it seriously.

The Obama administration went out of its way to work out a compromise in this area. It went beyond what the Constitution requires. But now the time has come to realize that there can be no “compromise” with zealots who pine not just for the 1950s but the 1350s.

The administration’s stated goal is a policy that allows as many Americans as possible to get and use safe and effective forms of birth control. The goal of groups like Becket, the FRC and the strident anti-abortion groups is the opposite: to deny access to as many Americans as possible because they consider use of birth control a sin, and they’ve yet to come to grips with the social changes that have occurred since birth control became widely available in the 1960s.

There is no common ground here. It’s time to ask a hard question: Why is the administration even listening to, yet along trying to appease, these forces?