The Corner

E. J. Dionne, Courtier

I agree with much more in E. J. Dionne’s Washington Post column today than I usually do (yes, that’s quite a low bar), but I would like to highlight his gross distortion of what is at stake in the battle over the HHS contraceptive mandate.

Dionne complains that “Republican presidential candidates want to take a disagreement over whether and how contraception should be covered in plans issued under the new health-care law and turn it into a war against religion itself.” That bland description obscures what the actual disagreement is about. It’s not about whether and how contraception should generally be covered in health-insurance plans. It’s about whether employers who have religious objections to providing such coverage — including of contraceptives that also operate as abortifacients and of sterilization — should nonetheless be compelled to.

The HHS mandate, both in its original form that has now been made final as a rule and in its supposedly-to-be-modified-in-some-vague-way-somewhere-down-the-road version, is a patent violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. There simply is no good reason why the Obama administration insists on dragooning employers to facilitate the provision of services they object to on religious grounds, when it could so easily arrange for those services to be provided directly to affected employees.

Obama’s support for the mandate is, to be sure, not “a war against religion itself.” But it is an attack on faithful Catholics and on other Americans who have religious objections to facilitating access to contraceptives, abortifacients, or sterilization. And, as law professor Michael Stokes Paulsen explains, the

whole point [of the attack], it seems, is to override religious objections to such a policy to the maximum extent politically possible, out of an intense ideological commitment to contraception and abortion as “preventive health care.” It is vital, the ideologues say, to prevail over religious objections precisely in order to advance, and permanently entrench, this particular ideology and, further, to vindicate the power of government to impose such policies on everyone. Religious objections must be overcome, in part for the sake of overcoming religious objections.

No American president has ever before waged such an attack. As Paulsen points out, perhaps the best precedent is the tyrant Antiochus IV Epiphanes’ 2nd-century B. C. decree that all Jews should be forced to publicly eat pork.

Dionne faults Mitt Romney for stating that the Obama administration has “fought against religion.” Again, to be sure, the Obama administration has not fought against all religions. (I suspect that Rev. Jeremiah Wright feels secure.) But it would be churlish to read Romney’s charge so broadly. What the Obama administration has been doing is fighting against traditional religious beliefs and believers.

The HHS mandate is part of a very ugly broader pattern. Take, for example, the Obama administration’s extraordinary claim, rejected unanimously by the Supreme Court in the Hosanna-Tabor case last month, that the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment afford religious organizations no protections against governmental interference in choosing their faith leaders. Consider also the Obama administration’s initial sabotage of the Defense of Marriage Act and then its outright abandonment of its duty to defend DOMA — all part of a broader effort to stigmatize supporters of traditional marriage as irrational bigots. Add to that the Obama administration’s reduction of religious freedom to a privatized right to worship. And its ideologically driven decision to discontinue funding a Catholic program for victims of sex trafficking. And so much more.

In a recent NRO essay, my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague George Weigel lamented that liberal Catholics, so eager “to play court chaplain to overweening and harshly secularist state power,” have abandoned their own “intellectual patrimony: the truth of religious freedom as the first of human rights.” Dionne, alas, provides a paradigmatic example.


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