“What are we doing here?” asked Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, stepping outside his wheelhouse to ask about a rising storm involving the Obama administration and the Catholic Church. “What’s the point?”
It was the Fall of 2011 and Panetta had read about a proposed Obama administration rule that would require employers – excluding houses of worship but including religious organizations such as charities, hospitals, and schools – to offer health insurance that fully covered contraception.
Panetta — a Catholic, former U.S. Representative, and White House chief of staff — didn’t quite understand why the Obama administration would be stepping into this conflict.
Panetta’s fears have to a degree been realized as White House officials now find themselves taking heat on a policy debate about conscience and religious liberty; the Obama administration is working to find a way to allow religious organizations to not pay for services they find morally objectionable, while also ensuring that, say, the women nurses and doctors who work at Catholic hospitals have full access to birth control. Some officials are discussing a way to introduce something like the law in Hawaii, where religious organizations don’t have to pay for employee insurance that covers contraception, but they do have to inform employees how they can get it on their own.
The debate within the White House on this issue was, sources say, heated, and President Obama was legitimately torn. Panetta wasn’t alone in his concerns. For months, Vice President Joe Biden and then-White House chief of staff Bill Daley argued internally against the rule, sources tell ABC News. Biden and Daley didn’t think the rule was right on either the policy or the politics, sources said. Joshua Dubois, head of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, also expressed concern.
The policy was wrong, the two Catholic men, Biden and Daley, argued, saying that the Obama administration couldn’t force religious charities to pay for something they think is a sin. Sources say that Biden and Daley in these internal debates emphasized the political fallout more so than the policy issue.