Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius indirectly addressed the controversy over requiring insurance coverage for birth control by invoking John F. Kennedy’s 1960 church-and-state speech during an address at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute on Friday.
“Kennedy was elected president on November 8, 1960,” Sebelius noted. “And more than 50 years later, that conversation, about the
intersection of our nation’s long tradition of religious freedom with policy decisions that affect the general public, continues.”
The secretary added, “People have deeply held beliefs on all sides of these discussions.”
Sebelius appeared to be referring to proposed federal regulations that would require religiously-affiliated hospitals and universities, such as Georgetown, to provide coverage for birth control on health insurance plans.
Catholic bishops criticized the regulations as unconstitutional on the grounds that they infringe on religious freedoms. The Catholic Church bans the use of artificial birth control.
Sebelius’ speech was interrupted by a protestor who, according to The Washington Post’s Jenna Johnson, shouted “You’re a murderer!” and was escorted off campus.
Georgetown University, the nation’s oldest Catholic and Jesuit university, was criticized for inviting Sibelius to speak by largely conservative activists and church officials who lamented “the selection of a featured speaker whose actions as a public official present the most direct challenge to religious liberty in recent history.”
Sebelius became the target of conservative scorn through her role in the health insurance policy. Her agency’s attempt at a compromise --shifting the responsibility for paying for birth control from the institutions to the insurers --was rejected by the bishops as “radically flawed” and “unconstitutional.”
Below is an excerpt from Sebelius’ speech Friday. Read her full remarks here.
“Ultimately, public policy is about making difficult choices. Today, there are serious debates underway about the direction of our country – debates about the size and role of government, about America’s role as a global economic and military leader, about the moral and economic imperative of providing health care to all our citizens. People have deeply-held beliefs on all sides of these discussions, and you, as public policy leaders, will be called on to help move these debates forward.
“These are not questions with quick and easy answers. When I was in junior high, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was running for president. I wasn’t old enough to vote, but it was the first national campaign I really remember. Some of then-Senator Kennedy’s opponents attacked him for his religion, suggesting that electing the first Catholic president would undermine the separation of church and state, a fundamental principle of our democracy. The furor grew so loud that Kennedy chose to deliver a speech about his beliefs just seven weeks before the election.
“In that talk to Protestant ministers, Kennedy talked about his vision of religion and the public square, and said he believed in an America, and I quote, ‘where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials – and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against us all.’
“Kennedy was elected president on November 8, 1960. And more than 50 years later, that conversation, about the intersection of our nation’s long tradition of religious freedom with policy decisions that affect the general public, continues.
“Contributing to these debates will require more than just the quantitative skills you have learned at Georgetown. It will also require the ethical skills you have honed – the ability to weigh different views, see issues from other points of view, and in the end, follow your own moral compass.
“These debates can also be contentious. But this is a strength of our country, not a weakness. In some countries around the world, it is much easier to make policy. The leader delivers an edict and it goes into effect. There’s no debate, no criticism, no second guessing.
“ Our system is messier, slower, more frustrating, and far better. It requires conversations that can be painful and it almost always ends in compromise. But it’s through this process of conversation and compromise that we move forward, together, step by step, towards a ‘more perfect union.’”