May 2012 Church & State | Featured

A rally in downtown Scranton, Pa., March 23 was billed as a gathering to defend “religious freedom” – but sometimes things are not what they seem to be. In this case, the event was actually an attack on access to birth control, and it was backed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

Among those attending were 55 boys dressed in blue blazers from St. Gregory’s Academy in Elmhurst, a males-only boarding school. Joseph Dalimati, a senior at the school, told the Wilkes-Barre Citizens’ Voice that he believes reliance on birth control fosters sexually transmitted diseases.

“Women don’t have a right to what they are calling health care,” Dalimati said. “Birth control is not health care. Society is not obligated to provide it.”

The Scranton street protest was just one of several dozen similar events held in cities all over America. Planned by an anti-abortion group called the Pro-Life Action League, the events were endorsed by the bishops and represent the latest escalation of the church hierarchy’s ongoing war with the administration of President Barack Obama over Americans’ access to birth control.

The dust-up started in January, when the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a new rule that would have required most employers to include birth control for employees in insurance plans. Houses of worship would be exempt from the rule but many church-affiliated institutions, such as hospitals and colleges, would have to comply.

In the face of complaints over the policy, Obama announced a modification: while birth control coverage will still be mandated, religiously affiliated institutions won’t have to pay for it directly. Instead, all employees would be eligible, but the cost will be absorbed by insurance companies.

That still wasn’t enough for the bishops. Even though houses of worship are exempt from the policy, the hierarchy insisted that any attempt to guarantee contraceptive coverage to employees of church-affiliated institutions (many of which receive massive tax subsidies and hire lots of non-Catholics) was a violation of religious liberty.

The bishops then went even further, demanding that private employers should have the right to deny birth control coverage if it offends their beliefs.

In March, the USCCB announced that its administrative committee would be in charge of attacking the new regulation.

In a statement, the committee insisted that the debate isn’t really about birth control, which, according to the bishops, “is ubiquitous and inexpensive, even when it is not provided by the Church’s hand and with the Church’s funds.”

The bishops also asserted that they are not trying to ban contraceptives and noted “the U.S. Supreme Court took that issue off the table two generations ago.”

The bishops’ sanguine views about the availability and cost of birth control have been echoed by a host of conservative media commentators, the implication being that no one really needs help paying for contraceptives.

The reality on the ground isn’t so simple. It’s true that condoms are sometimes available at low or no cost at clinics, but they are only one form of birth control. Other options may be available at public clinics, but not all of those facilities offer family planning services.

In addition, the most effective forms of birth control tend to cost more.

The Associated Press reported recently that birth control pills range in cost from $9 to $90 per month. Intrauterine devices and an implant called Implanon can run $600 to $1,000 up front, and not all insurance plans cover them.

Permanent sterilization is often included in insurance plans but when it’s not, the cost can be steep. Planned Parenthood reports that vasectomies can top $1,000, and tubal ligations can run up to $6,000 or more if performed in a hospital.

Also, the bishops’ assertion that the Supreme Court took the issue of birth control off the table with rulings in 1965 and 1972 would seem to be a curious one for the church fathers to make. The Supreme Court also affirmed legal abortion in 1973 in Roe v. Wade, but that in no way took the issue “off the table” for the bishops. In fact, they’ve spent 39 years trying to overturn it.

Despite the widespread use of birth control in America, Republicans in Congress became convinced that they had found an attractive new “culture war” issue and cranked up the rhetorical heat. A committee in the House of Representatives held a hearing that has since become infamous for its lack of women on its first panel, as did the subsequent attack on Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke by radio broadcaster Rush Limbaugh. (See “No Fluke,” April 2012 Church & State.)

The Senate even had a vote on a measure introduced by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) that would have guaranteed private employers a “conscience clause” right to deny contraceptive coverage. It narrowly failed to pass – 51-48 – on a largely party line vote.

As the issue continued to grab headlines, it was reported that Obama administration officials were continuing to talk with the bishops in the hope of yet another compromise. But the talks were apparently coming to naught.

Meanwhile, most Americans were wondering what all of the fuss was about.

A poll taken by Blooomberg News in March found that most Americans aren’t buying the church’s religious freedom argument. In fact, they see the debate over contraception as a matter of public health, not religious liberty.

More than 60 percent of respondents say the issue is primarily one of health care. In addition, 77 percent said they don’t believe the matter should be a part of the political debate.

A Kaiser Family Foundation poll taken about the same time found that 63 percent of Americans agree that religiously affiliated institutions should be required to cover birth control. Support among Catholics hit 60 percent.

Kaiser also found that for most voters, the contraception issue was not considered important. Economic concerns dominate the public conversation, and fewer than 1 percent of respondents named birth control as a top election-year issue. Most Americans see the flap as politically driven.

A separate poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found similar results: 62 percent of all Americans backed the contraceptive mandate. Support among Catholics was even higher at 65 percent. Furthermore, 60 percent of American Catholics said religiously affiliated colleges should have to comply.

The bishops are aware of these numbers but are pressing ahead anyway – and they’re even launching a media offensive. On March 28, New York Cardinal Timothy E. Dolan appeared on Fox News Channel with Bill O’Reilly to discuss the issue.

During the five-minute interview, Dolan fielded several softball questions lobbed his way by O’Reilly. Conceding that the church’s absolutist position against contraceptives is not popular, Dolan insisted, “We can’t back down from this fight, because it’s about religious freedom.”

Dolan went on to blast the idea that there should be a “Berlin Wall” between religion and politics, calling it “crazy, ludicrous” and “un-American.” He warned that if religious voices are not prominent in politics, “a new religion called secularism” will rise up to take their place.

Rhetoric like this has made Dolan a hero to the Religious Right, and many of these organizations have been quick to jump aboard the Catholic bishops’ bandwagon. The Religious Right, a movement composed primarily of fundamentalist Protestants, hasn’t historically spent a lot of time attacking birth control.

The decision by organization leaders to join the bishops’ crusade is probably motivated more by their loathing of Obama and the desire to form a political coalition with the church hierarchy than principle.

For Religious Right groups, the flap over contraceptives also provides fund-raising opportunities.

In March, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins issued an appeal for donations calling the Obama regulation a “sin mandate” that will force ministries to “face crippling fines that could shut many of them down.”

Wrote Perkins, “Obama promised to ‘transform America.’ We now know his vision is a secular nation where Christian influence and freedoms are crushed by government mandates.”

The controversy has led some in the Religious Right to get excited. James Robison, a television preacher who was active in the formation of the Religious Right in the late 1970s, said in a recent interview that he believes the battle over birth control will help forge an evangelical-Catholic political alliance, a long-sought goal that has eluded the Religious Right.

Robison, who has co-authored a new book titled Restoring Faith, Family and Freedom Before It’s Too Late, was interviewed on a radio program recently by Richard Land, top lobbyist for the Southern Baptist Convention. Associated Baptist Press reported that Land endorsed the book and Robison’s call for a political alliance with conservative Catholics.

“The thing that frightens our opponents the most is the specter of an evangelical-Catholic alliance, because they can count,” Land said. “You take evangelicals and you take Roman Catholics and you are over 50 percent of the population of the country.”

Despite the protests, the Obama administration is moving ahead with the new regulation. On March 16, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a document known as an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. It’s essentially a notice that a new rule is about to be proposed and an invitation to comment on it.

Americans United’s Legislative Department plans to offer input.

AU Legislative Director Maggie Garrett said the organization will reiterate points it has made in the past about access to birth control. Americans United, she said, believes the compromise fashioned by Obama is a good one: It exempts purely religious institutions, like houses of worship, from the birth control mandate but allows employees of religiously affiliated institutions, which are often tax funded and hire people with many different perspectives about religion, to access contraceptives through insurance plans if they want them.

Garrett said the Catholic hierarchy talks about religious freedom, but what they are really seeking is a mechanism that will enable them to impose their views about contraceptives on large numbers of Americans who do not share that belief.

“Religious freedom doesn’t give a church the right to impose its dogma on the unwilling,” Garrett said. “The Obama administration has crafted a rule that protects the interests of purely religious groups while preserving every American’s right to make his or her own decisions about private medical matters. It’s a sensible course that most Americans support, and so does AU.”

Americans United is also speaking out on the issue in the national media. AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn has done several interviews about the issue and also penned an opinion column that appeared in newspapers nationwide.

In the column, Lynn opposed the idea that health care should be tailored to the demands of large and powerful religious groups or that employers should have a right to bend employees’ health care to the employer’s religious beliefs.

“Thus, if your boss becomes a fundamentalist Christian and decides that childhood vaccines demonstrate a lack of faith in God, he can deny vaccination coverage to all of his workers,” wrote Lynn. “This is not ‘religious freedom.’ It is control of others.”

Added Lynn, “The government has no obligation to assist an employer impose his religious beliefs on others. A factory owner has the right to believe what he wants about God and run his own life according to those beliefs. He has no right to interject his theology into the personal relationship between you and your doctor.”