"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.
When the Catholic bishops broke with their own long-standing support for universal health-care coverage and opposed the president's plan, saying the bill could be construed to cover abortions, we disagreed with them. We applauded Sister Carol Keehan, the head of the Catholic Health Association, who bravely bucked the bishops to back the bill, giving cover to Catholic Democrats who voted with Obama. But the president has now put her in an impossible position.
One in six hospital patients in America is treated in a Catholic facility. Those hospitals can't turn people away if they don't happen to be Catholic. And they can't fill their staffs with Catholic doctors, nurses, administrators, etc. Saying she was "disappointed" by the ruling, Sister Keehan called it "a missed opportunity to be clear on appropriate conscience protection."
The only bone the administration threw this woman who had risked so much for the president? A delay of one year in implementing the regulations. At least that gives the aggrieved institutions time to take the matter to court, with the hope they can take it to the top.
The Supreme Court could agree that the administration is violating religious freedom, given a recent unanimous ruling in favor of a Lutheran school's right to choose its religion teachers without being subject to anti-discrimination laws. The Obama Justice Department's argument against the school serves as another indication to the Catholic bishops that this president is hostile to religion.
Obama can't leave that politically dangerous charge unanswered in this churchgoing country. The Republican candidates are already trying to capitalize on the bishops' concern. Without some conciliatory move from the White House, the president risks losing a significant number of Catholic voters in an election where he can't afford to lose one.