March 2012 Church & State | People & Events

The Obama administration in January infuriated the U.S. Catholic bishops by issuing a new rule that would have required church-affiliated institutions to include free birth control for employees in insurance plans, sparking a showdown that led to a modified rule a few weeks later.

In January, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced that religious groups would be given a one-year extension and, after that, would have to arrange for contraceptive coverage as the new health care law requires. Although the new rule exempted houses of worship, it would have applied to church-affiliated entities such as colleges, hospitals and social service agencies.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops attacked the regulation as a violation of its religious liberty and vowed not to abide by it. Republican presidential candidates and conservatives in Congress also assailed the measure, and several syndicated newspaper columnists piled on, generating a media firestorm.

Polls showed that most Americans – including most Catholics – backed the new rule, but Obama announced on Feb. 10 that it would be modified. In a brief White House appearance, Obama said that while birth control coverage will still be mandated, religiously affiliated institutions won’t have to pay directly for it. Instead, the cost will be passed on to insurance companies.

The new approach won support from Planned Parenthood and the Catholic Health Association of the United States.

Americans United issued a statement saying it appreciated Obama’s attempts to forge a compromise that protects women’s rights. But AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn criticized the clerical interference in private health care matters.

“I am glad that the president is still seeking to ensure that women have access to birth control, but Americans need to know that this battle isn’t over,” said Lynn. “Powerful sectarian lobbyists and their allies in Congress are still pushing to deny individual freedom.”

“In a nation that separates religion and government,” he continued, “it is wrong to let the Catholic hierarchy and the Religious Right write laws that impose their theology. American women, including the 98 percent of Catholic women who have used birth control, have every right to be outraged by the disproportionate political influence of the handful of men who run the Catholic Church and the Religious Right.”

The Washington Post reported that Obama called New York City Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan before announcing the modification, but the bishops blasted it anyway. Far-right Catholics were also not pleased. H. James Towey, president of Ave Maria University in Florida and former head of the “faith-based” office under President George W. Bush, told The Post his university might sue over the matter.

“We subsidize these health plans, so the question is whether university resources are underwriting this,” Towey said.

AU’s Lynn said the flap is likely the opening salvo on a new round of right-wing attacks on contraception.