Despite the White House’s rather successful efforts to reframe the media and congressional debate over the HHS “contraceptive mandate” as a right-wing jihad against “women’s health” — a cynical ploy aided and abetted by Rush Limbaugh’s one-man circular firing squad — the real battle against the mandate and in defense of religious freedom has continued. A March 2 letter from Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to his brother bishops usefully and succinctly outlined the current state of affairs, which amounts to unremitting stonewalling from the Obama administration.
The key section of Dolan’s letter read as follows:
When the President announced on January 20th that the choking mandates from HHS would remain, not only we bishops and our Catholic faithful, but people of every faith, or none at all, rallied in protest. The worry that we had expressed — that such government control was contrary to our deepest political values — was eloquently articulated by constitutional scholars and leaders of every creed.
On February 10th, the President announced that the insurance providers would have to pay the bill, instead of the Church’s schools, hospitals, clinics, or vast network of charitable outreach having to do so. He considered this “concession” adequate. Did this help? We wondered if it would, and you will recall that the Conference announced at first that, while withholding final judgment, we would certainly give the President’s proposal close scrutiny. Well, we did — and as you know, we are as worried as ever.
For one, there was not even a nod to the deeper concerns about trespassing upon religious freedom, or of modifying the HHS’ attempt to define the how and who of our ministry. Two, since a big part of our ministries are “self-insured,” we still ask how this protects us. We’ll still have to pay and, in addition to that, we’ll still have to maintain in our policies practices which our Church has consistently taught are grave wrongs in which we cannot participate. And what about forcing individual believers to pay for what violates their religious freedom and conscience? We can’t abandon the hard working person of faith who has a right to religious freedom. And three, there was still no resolution about the handcuffs placed upon renowned Catholic charitable agencies, both national and international, and their exclusion from contracts just because they will not refer victims of human trafficking, immigrants and refugees, and the hungry of the world, for abortions, sterilization, or contraception.
Cardinal Dolan then shed important light on the administration’s approach to this debate, that is, presenting itself as the reasonable party, conceding nothing, and then using flacks like Senator Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to muddy the waters and divert attention from the manifest unconstitutionality and illegality of the mandate:
[After February 10], the President invited us to “work out the wrinkles.” We have accepted that invitation . . . [Yet] the White House Press Secretary . . . informed the nation that the mandates are a fait accompli (and, embarrassingly for him, commented that we bishops have always opposed Health Care anyway, a charge that is scurrilous and insulting, not to mention flat out wrong. . . .) The White House [also] notified Congress that the dreaded mandates are now published in the Federal Registry “without change.” The Secretary of HHS is widely quoted as saying, “Religious insurance companies don’t really design the plans they sell based on their own religious tenets.” That doesn’t bode well for their getting a truly acceptable “accommodation.”
At a recent meeting between staff of the bishops’ conference and the White House staff, our staff members asked directly whether the broader concerns of religious freedom — that is, revisiting the straight-jacketing mandates, or broadening the maligned exemption — are all off the table. They were informed that they are. So much for “working out the wrinkles.” Instead, they advised the bishops’ conference that we should listen to the “enlightened” voices of accommodation, such as the recent, hardly surprising yet terribly unfortunate editorial in America. The White House seems to think we bishops simply do not know or understand Catholic teaching and so, taking a cue from its own definition of religious freedom, now has nominated its own handpicked official Catholic teachers.
We will continue to accept invitations to meet with and to voice our concerns to anyone of any party, for this is hardly partisan, who is willing to correct the infringements on religious freedom that we are now under. But as we do so, we cannot rely on off the record promises of fixes without deadlines and without assurances of proposals that will concretely address the concerns in a manner that does not conflict with our principles and teaching.