This morning, the Obama administration announced a compromise on the Affordable Care Act mandate that religious hospitals and social service organizations would, along with all other employers, have to cover contraception without a co-pay for all employees. If a woman works for a religious employer who objects to providing contraceptive coverage, her insurance company will be required to cover it free of charge—to the employee and to the employer.
As a compromise, “it’s sort of miraculous,” Kristin Ford, of Faith in Public Life, one of the progressive organizations founded after the 2004 election to organize faith communities, told me. “We didn’t know if there would be a way forward that protected both access to contraception and religious liberty concerns.”
Indeed, the new policy has drawn support both from the country’s largest pro-choice organizations, including Planned Parenthood and NARAL, and from the Catholic Health Association, the national association of Catholic healthcare facilities. CHA’s Sister Carol Keenan said the change “protects the religious liberty and conscience rights of Catholic institutions.”
Responses from FIPL, CHA and other Catholic organizations underscore a reality about Catholic voters that has become crystal clear in the past week. Put plainly, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has bitterly opposed the contraception coverage mandate, does not speak for all Catholics—and it does not even speak for all organized Catholics. A widely reported poll from Public Policy Polling found that a majority of Catholics, 53 percent, supported the birth control requirement even before the compromise. For 46 percent of Catholic voters, Mitt Romney’s position on the issue—opposing it and calling the coverage requirement an “attack on religious liberty”—makes them less likely to vote for him in November. Yet another poll, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, found that 58 percent of Catholics believe that their own employer should be required to cover no-cost birth control. (And don’t forget that the backdrop for all of this is that 99 percent of sexuality active women use birth control, and 98 percent of Catholic women.)
Of course, the bishops don’t want to stop at a compromise for religious institutions; they oppose requiring any employer to provide contraceptive coverage. They haven’t condemned the policy yet (see my update below), but it’s doubtful anything will please them. “If the bishops are unwilling to recognize the value of [this] compromise, I suspect their opposition is more about playing politics than serving the needs of the people,” said Catholics United executive director James Salt in a statement. But this week—for anyone who hadn’t realized it yet—we’ve learned that the bishops’ thoroughly out-of-touch demands have little currency with Catholics. Moreover, there are organized Catholic voices, like CHA, that will accept a fair compromise when they see one.