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What the Catholic bishops owe President Obama

U.S. Catholic bishops have a lot to worry about: the gunning down of children; 11 million undocumented immigrants, many of them Catholic; a warming planet; a chilly economy. Instead they’ve spent the last year obsessed with contraception.

The bishops are furious over the Affordable Care Act, which generally requires employers to cover contraception. It isn’t a novel concept. Nine years ago, 86 percent of the plans that insurance companies typically wrote for employers covered contraception. It’s included as part of a minimum standard of coverage by the Institute of Medicine.

Even so, purely religious institutions such as churches were exempted from providing such coverage. The bishops wanted a wider exemption for all religious organizations, not just those whose main purpose was the “inculcation of religious values” and whose employees were primarily Catholic.

And so President Barack Obama promised a year ago — with a nudge from Vice President Joe Biden, a Catholic — to reconsider. He pledged that he would expand the institutional exemptions. At the time, his critics portrayed this promise as a craven ploy to get him beyond the election. Newt Gingrich, then a Republican candidate for president, predicted that Obama would continue his battle against the church “the morning after he is re-elected.”

Picking fights

Wrong. Obama was looking neither to buy time nor to pick a fight with the bishops. (It’s more likely they were looking for one with him: In 2004, the bishops warned Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry that he would be denied Communion for his pro-choice views. By ostracizing political candidates, they like to enforce beliefs that their parishioners have rejected.)

But Obama kept his word, and last week, in the form of new regulations from the Department of Health and Human Services, the definition of “religious organizations” was expanded to include nonprofit religious groups whose work is inspired by their faith. Employees can still get coverage for birth control, but it will be separate from a religious employer’s plan.

A Catholic teaching hospital, for example, may not want to pay for a nurse’s birth-control pills. So an insurer will offer a separate policy. The slight premium (slight because insurers save money with fewer accidental pregnancies) will be offset by lowering fees that insurers will pay to be in new health care exchanges.

Everyone happy? Not a chance. Even though the new regulation shows that the president has taken the bishops’ objections into account, they refuse once again to declare victory and move on to aiding the poor and comforting the sick. They will not be satisfied, apparently, if even one employee of a Catholic-aligned institution is getting birth control through insurance.

Of course, Catholics will use contraception. They have been for decades. But the bishops continue their war against it by other means. They will in all likelihood object to these latest regulations (as of this writing, they were still studying them) and maintain the dozens of lawsuits making their way through the courts.

A year ago, I said the bishops had moved the Pearly Gates on the Obama administration. Now they have moved them again. They risk never being satisfied, becoming part of the cranky right and its war against women. They can’t seem to work up much outrage over insurance plans that cover erectile-dysfunction drugs, for example.

Partisan fights

Last spring, Rush Limbaugh went after a law student who had testified before Congress about the need for health insurance to cover contraception, calling her a “slut” and professing himself “surprised she can even walk” after so much sex. Far from distancing themselves from Limbaugh, Republicans were largely on board with his statements.

Party standard-bearer Mitt Romney would say only that Limbaugh’s was “not the language I would have used.” Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri introduced the Blunt amendment, which would have extended the religious exemption to any employer. Let’s say you are a married 25-year-old woman flipping Whoppers at Burger King and paying your share of the premiums for your employer-provided health insurance. Then the company’s chief executive decides it offends his conscience to be paying for contraceptives. You could find another job. Oh, wait: Domino’s has the same policy, as does McDonald’s, and soon enough so will Joe the Plumber. There’s no telling how many employers would find themselves as offended as the bishops.

In a pluralistic society, we have to balance the greater good against religious liberty. This right isn’t an absolute. When it considered the subject 23 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that even if smoking peyote is part of your religious practice, the government can still arrest you for it. So observant soldiers might be required to fight on the Sabbath, or (if they are Quakers) fight at all, while Hare Krishna can’t play tambourines at the airport.

When a law is reasonable, as unintrusive as possible, and only incidentally affects religion, there is no exemption required. In other words: The Obama administration didn’t have to issue new regulations. But it did. The president didn’t have to placate the bishops, but he is trying to anyway. Maybe they should say five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys in gratitude.



Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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