Persecution Complex: Catholic Hierarchy, Religious Right Continue Heated Attack On Birth Control Mandate

These folks want to impose their theological views about birth control on other Americans who may not share those views.

A claim that someone is being persecuted by a government is not something to be taken lightly, but that accusation rings hollow when it comes to the Roman Catholic hierarchy and Religious Right’s fight for exemption from the Obama administration’s birth control mandate.

Last week, a group of 22 Catholic educational organizations sent comments to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to express concern “about the illegal violations of religious freedom” that supposedly stem from the Obama administration’s implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Under HHS regulations, most employers are expected to offer a health care policy that includes access to birth control at no cost to the employee. Houses of worship are exempt from the requirement, and employees at religiously affiliated entities such as church schools and hospitals will get contraceptive coverage from third-party insurers. Their employers won’t have to pay for it.

The most recent proposed accommodations were announced in February, and at that time HHS asked for additional comments, which were due this week.

In response to that request, the 22 Catholic colleges and universities sent a letter drafted by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Religious Right legal outfit founded by radio and television preachers, that rejected the latest compromise. The proposed accommodation, the schools said, “illegally require[s] religious objectors to issue health plans that cause coverage of  ‘contraception.’”

The ADF-composed letter even called the contraceptive mandate an unprecedented violation of religious liberty.

“No other federal rule has so narrowly and discriminatorily defined what it means to exercise religious conscience, and no regulation has ever so directly violated plain statutory and constitutional religious freedoms,” the letter said.  

Others, like the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, made similar charges. And back in March, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops weighed in, listing five objections to the contraceptive mandate. The points followed a predictable theme: the mandate supposedly infringes on religious freedom.

Harsh as those accusations were, others went even further. The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) said in an April 8 comment that the mandate amounts to persecution.

“Through its mandate, HHS is abusing the authority of the federal government by forcing believers to choose between either offending their God and violating their consciences or facing crushing fines and possible imprisonment for adhering to their deeply held moral convictions,” said Richard Land, outgoing president of the ERLC. “This is, by definition, a form of religious persecution.”

This claim completely mischaracterizes the issue and is blatantly false. Land should know better, but this kind of attack is sort of his thing.  

What’s the bottom line here? It’s this: These folks want to impose their theological views about birth control on other Americans who may not share those views.

In part to combat the misinformation coming from those who oppose birth control access, Americans United sent a letter of its own to HHS on April 8. AU rejected all of the claims by the Catholic hierarchy and Religious Right, while also encouraging the Obama administration not to back down.

“In the end, the provision of a comprehensive set of health-care benefits is really no different than the provision of a paycheck; employees are free to utilize both kinds of benefits in any manner that they wish, and the employer cannot reasonably be perceived to support or endorse any particular use thereof,” asserted AU in the comments. “Thus, the requirement that entities include insurance coverage for contraceptives as part of group insurance plans places no substantial burden on the employer.”

AU also noted that the exemption for religious organizations and their affiliates surpasses what the U.S. Constitution requires.

“The current exemption and accommodation far surpass necessity, and the Administration should reject further arguments to extend them,” AU said.

HHS is now working to finalize the rules on the contraceptive mandate, which HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said will take effect Aug. 1.

“As of Aug. 1, 2013, every employee who doesn’t work directly for a church or a diocese will be included in the benefit package,” she said, according to the Washington Times.

If Sebelius and her colleagues are in tune with public opinion, no further accommodations will be made. LifeWay Research, which is the research arm of Land’s Southern Baptist Convention, found that 63 percent of adults say “businesses should be required to provide their employees with free contraception and birth control, even if it runs counter to the owners’ religious principles.”

This issue has generated quite a bit of comment from all sides, and it’s likely that the matter won’t be settled until the U.S. Supreme Court decides it. But one thing should be clear – no one is being persecuted here.

Ultimately, access to birth control is a personal decision to be made by individuals, as AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn noted in a recent media statement.

“Americans want and deserve access to safe and affordable birth control,” he said. “Put simply, the decision to use contraceptives is a personal matter and should be governed by the individual, not powerful sectarian lobbies.”