“Religious liberty in our country is in jeopardy.” Catholics in the Washington, D.C., area heard those ominous words from their archbishop read during Masses last Sunday. With similar statements echoing through churches around the country, the Republican candidates for president have taken up the cry.
The most recent cause of the bishops’ alarm: the Obama administration’s regulations under the health-care law requiring religiously affiliated entities to provide free sterilization and contraception, including some drugs that cause abortions, to their employees and, in the case of Catholic universities, their students. It’s a decision that’s politically baffling as the president heads into a tough election in which the Catholic vote could be critical.
Four years ago, Barack Obama won the Catholic vote – which is about a quarter of the electorate and swings back and forth in presidential elections, usually going with the winner. But he won it only because he had such overwhelming support from Hispanics; he lost non-Hispanic Catholics. The way things are going this year, Obama could be endangering himself even with Hispanics by courting such full-throated opposition from the hierarchy.
Church officials were already smarting over a ruling late last year denying funding to a 5-year-old program run by an arm of the Catholic bishops’ conference aimed at helping victims of human trafficking. Staffers on a review panel at the Department of Health and Human Services gave high marks to the program, which worked with other organizations such as Jewish Family Services and the Salvation Army to arrange housing, counseling and other much-needed services for abused workers and prostitutes. But the panel was overruled by political appointees who instead announced that they preferred to send federal dollars to organizations promising “family planning and a full range of legally permissible reproductive services.”
Political appointees at the top of Cabinet departments certainly have the right to ignore the recommendations of bureaucrats. Secretary Kathleen Sebelius did just that when she rejected the Food and Drug Administration’s finding that the “Plan B,” or morning-after, pill to prevent pregnancy was appropriate as an over-the-counter drug for women under age 17. Though the scientific experts warned of the dangers of unplanned pregnancies, Sebelius judged the pill unsuitable for young girls.
But now the administration is hiding behind similar experts at the Institute of Medicine in its decision to require all health insurers to cover contraception and sterilization at no cost to the consumer. Churches themselves would be exempt from the rule, but Catholic schools, hospitals and social service organizations that serve and employ many non-Catholics would not. Reportedly the decision came after heavy lobbying by abortion rights advocates. Now many faith-based institutions are left with three options, says Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl: to violate their beliefs; to stop providing insurance and face fines under the health-care law; or to stop serving non-Catholics...