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.
I spoke yesterday with Frances Kissling, former head of Catholics for Choice, about whether Catholic institutions outside of the USCCB might be appeased by a compromise that retained employees’ ability to access contraceptive coverage. “Would it be a good thing if a way could be found that all people who are insured by religiously affiliated institutions could be provided contraceptive coverage while these Catholic hospitals and universities—whether there is merit to their case or not—could save face on this issue? Yes, that would be a good thing,” she told me. “It’s not perfect, but politics is not perfect.”
In Kissling’s estimation, it was not the requirement that Catholic hospitals and universities provide contraceptive coverage that was the real stumbling block for them—“enough of them are already doing that,” she said—but that the fact that the religious exemption for churches and houses of worship left them out. Without the classification of “religious institution,” said Kissling, the schools and hospitals erode their ability to argue for exemptions to other pieces of public policy they oppose. “These institutions fear that an overarching policy on who is religious will have been established that leaves them exposed. That means, that when the next issue comes up, they will never be able to assert a conscientious objection based on religion.”
The one pro-choice group that doesn’t wholeheartedly endorse the compromise, so far, is Catholics for Choice, warning in a statement that “this compromise relies on insurance companies doing the right thing” and noting:
One wonders what has been gained by this ‘accommodation.’ It certainly isn’t the support of Catholics. The majority of Catholics are in favor of contraceptive access for women, regardless of where they work. And despite hopes and promises, the bishops won’t be throwing their support behind this administration, or women’s health, or true religious liberty anytime soon.
When I asked CFC president Jon O’Brien whether support of Catholic institutions like CHA or Catholics United wasn’t a gain, he said, “No doubt the White House has assuaged some of the concerns put forward by conservative liberal Catholics. It’s a similar tactic that was pulled in health insurance reform debate. If the White House can show that they have Catholic support, then it’s harder for Republicans to make hay with the accusation that Obama is not sensitive to religious institutions. It does something for White House; it takes the vinegar out of the wine. But ultimately, knowing what happened with Hawaii compromise, all that was compromised was a lot of women’s healthcare. It doesn’t guarantee that women will receive services they want, and it opens the door to conceding on other issues to the bishops.”
As O’Brien suggests, pro-choice groups will have to keep a close watch on the implementation of the compromise. Will insurers tie employees up in red tape? What tack will Catholic insurers take?
Meanwhile, Republicans from Romney to Rubio have been denouncing the mandate. Now that Obama has neutralized the religious liberty objection, will they come clean and admit they’re opposed to contraceptive access altogether—or realize this is a losing issue and leave it alone?
Update: The bishops aren’t breathing fire yet. From their statement:
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) sees initial opportunities in preserving the principle of religious freedom after President Obama’s announcement today. But the Conference continues to express concerns. “While there may be an openness to respond to some of our concerns, we reserve judgment on the details until we have them,” said Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Update #2: And now the bishops have officially come out against the accommodation.
These changes require careful moral analysis, and moreover, appear subject to some measure of change. But we note at the outset that the lack of clear protection for key stakeholders—for self-insured religious employers; for religious and secular for-profit employers; for secular non-profit employers; for religious insurers; and for individuals—is unacceptable and must be corrected. And in the case where the employee and insurer agree to add the objectionable coverage, that coverage is still provided as a part of the objecting employer's plan, financed in the same way as the rest of the coverage offered by the objecting employer. This, too, raises serious moral concerns...
We will therefore continue—with no less vigor, no less sense of urgency—our efforts to correct this problem through the other two branches of government. For example, we renew our call on Congress to pass, and the Administration to sign, the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act. And we renew our call to the Catholic faithful, and to all our fellow Americans, to join together in this effort to protect religious liberty and freedom of conscience for all.
Other Posts You Should Read:
Amanda Marcotte, “Obama Punks the GOP on Contraception”
Jodi Jacobson, “White House Amends Birth Control Mandate”
Frances Kissling, “Obama’s contraception compromise should satisfy all sides”