July/August 2012 Church & State | People & Events

The Roman Catholic hierarchy has engineered a series of lawsuits asserting that a proposed new federal health-care regulation providing birth control services for all Americans who want them is an infringement on the church’s religious freedom.

The assertion is bogus, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In May, 40 Catholic groups joined the legal effort in a slew of lawsuits to attack an Obama administration regulation requiring health insurance companies to provide no-copay birth control to employees who want it. The issue has been simmering for months and has led to a deep rift between Obama and the Catholic bishops.

Houses of worship are exempt from the mandate, but the bishops are trying to deny birth control coverage for employees at Catholic-affiliated institutions such as hospitals and colleges as well. They even want an exemption to cover secular businesses owned by Catholics.

“It’s important to expose these lawsuits for what they are: an outrageous assault on safe, effective and affordable birth control,” said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. “To the bishops, ‘religious freedom’ means the right to force their dogma on the unwilling.”

Lynn pointed out that Catholic colleges, hospitals and social service agencies receive massive amounts of taxpayer support. They serve and hire many non-Catholics, as well as Cath­olics who choose not to follow the hierarchy’s decree against birth control.

The bishops, said Lynn, should not be permitted to use taxpayer-supported institutions as vehicles to impose their doctrines on birth control.

The vast majority of American Catholics, Lynn noted, consider the bishops’ stand on contraceptives to be outdated and unrealistic, and they ignore it.

“The bishops haven’t been able to persuade their own flock to listen to them on birth control, so now they are attempting to use lawsuits to achieve the control they yearn for,” Lynn said. “The courts should reject this clerical power grab.”

Commenting in Mother Jones magazine, Lynn called the legal effort “outrageous” and added, “The bishops want U.S. government health care policy to reflect Catholic teachings, and they’re looking to the courts to get what they want. The Obama administration should stand firm. Americans should not be denied birth control services just because one aggressive religious group is opposed to it.”

While many prominent figures in the church hierarchy have been very vocal in assaulting Obama, not every prelate is on board. Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., said recently that he is worried that the church is being co-opted by the right wing.

Writing in the Jesuit magazine America, Blaire asserted, “I think there are different groups that are trying to co-opt [the birth control issue] and make it into a political issue, and that’s why we need to have a deeper discussion as bishops.”