Religious Loss

Birth Control Trumps Religious Freedom in Obama’s Catholic Decision

Kirsten Powers: religious freedom loses when Catholic institutions are forced to pay for contraceptives.

Susan Walsh / AP Photo

It’s hard to escape the feeling that the Obama administration is trying to run America’s Catholic charities and institutions out of business.

How else to explain the mean-spirited decision mandating that Catholic institutions be required to pay for health insurance that covers sterilization, contraceptives, and the “morning-after pill,” which violates their fundamental religious beliefs?

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius even had the gumption to claim Sunday that the “contraception rule respects religion.” On Jan. 20, she insisted she had reached an agreeable compromise, saying the decision “strikes a balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services.”

What balance? What respect for religious freedom? The administration took religious liberty, a principle on which our country was founded, weighed it against access to contraception, and somehow in its bizarro math, religious freedom lost.

“The government knows that [most] employer-based insurance plans already cover these services,” Hannah Smith, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, tells me. “So it’s not about expanding contraceptive access. It’s about forcing religious-based organizations to provide this against their beliefs.”

Indeed, the Guttmacher Institute found that in 2010, “nine in 10 employer-based insurance plans cover[ed] a full range of prescription contraceptives.”

I’m not Catholic. I support contraception. But this is madness.

The administration wants to remind us of their benevolence: they are giving institutions with religious objections a whole year to implement a government rule that violates the core tenets of their faith. Gee, thanks!

“In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences,” Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops told The Washington Post.

If religious institutions choose to ignore the mandate by dropping their insurance plans, they will face exorbitant fines under the Affordable Care Act that could force them to close their doors. Smith tells me that for one of the Becket Fund’s clients, the fine for the first year would be more than $300,000, and for the second year, more than $500,000.

One thing we can be sure of: the Catholic Church will shut down before it violates its faith. We saw that recently when Catholic adoption and foster-care services closed in Massachusetts and Illinois rather than comply with state mandates that they place children with gay parents. Who lost? Parentless children.

The administration has to know this, so why would it force the hand of Catholic institutions that have traditionally filled in the gaps in social services that the government failed to provide? The people who will suffer if they close their doors are the poor, refugees, the homeless, orphans, and the elderly.

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The White House is defending its decision by claiming that this requirement is no different from what is required by many states around the country. Even if this were true, it would not be a justification.

“The federal mandate is unquestionably broader in scope and narrower in its exemption than all of the 28 states’ comparable laws,” says Smith of the Becket Fund. “Religious organizations in states with a mandate—even those where there is no express exemption—may opt out by simply self-insuring, dropping prescription drug coverage, or offering ERISA plans. The federal mandate permits none of these alternatives, and therefore is less protective of religious liberty than any of the states’ policies.”

Smith points out that the administration has provided exemptions for the Amish and Native American tribes, so why not an exemption for Catholic institutions?

Judge Andrew Napolitano, the Catholic libertarian Fox Business Network host, tells me, “Most Catholic families do not follow the teachings on the church on contraceptives. It is their most unpopular and privately disregarded of the teachings in the modern era. However, what the government is doing is utterly reprehensible from a constitutional perspective. It’s a core teaching of the church, whether it is accepted by the public or not. This is interfering with the free exercise of religion.”

The issue will be litigated—the Becket Fund has filed two cases on behalf of Catholic schools—but whether the court will view the administration’s move as a violation of the U.S. Constitution remains to be seen. The American Civil Liberties Union maintains that the rule is fully constitutional.

Regardless of how the courts rule, the administration has planted its flag on the wrong side of history on this issue. The government’s disregard for the fundamental right of freedom of religion is chilling and should cause all Americans concern.