Contraception contretemps

Dozens of Catholic institutions have hauled off and sued the Obama administration, claiming that religious freedom is on the line. But as I see it, both sides are in the wrong.

More than 40 Catholic schools, hospitals, charities and dioceses, including the Archdiocese of Washington, are going to court, ostensibly to fight a requirement that would force them to violate church teaching by including free contraceptive coverage for employees in their health-care plans by as soon as Aug. 1.

The litigants do have one point: It’s true that the Department of Health and Human Services has so narrowly defined its exemption for religious institutions that it really only covers churches, dioceses, and diocesan schools, but not other church-run hospitals and charities.

That’s a mistake. And because HHS hasn’t addressed the problem, it is seen by those who are suing as proof that they aren’t being heard, or dealt with in good faith, so to speak.

Which brings us to the “pot, meet kettle” portion of the program.

It’s also true that those filing suit have shown no interest in the compromise announced by the administration back in February that allows nonprofit church-affiliated entities to opt out of the mandate. The compromise proposed several ways that employees could still receive full contraceptive coverage without the involvement of Catholic institutions, even if those institutions are self-insured. And it simply isn’t true that the required coverage includes “abortion-inducing drugs.’’

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, whose New York diocese is among those filing suit, has reason to feel burned by Obama personally; the president had assured him that the exemption would be broad, and instead he got broadsided. Dolan told the Catholic News Service, “We tried negotiations with the administration . . . and we’ll keep at it.” But amid legal action, how’s that going to work?

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which Dolan also heads, has not filed suit, but it does appear to be a driving force behind the litigation. The Indiana-based Catholic newspaper Our Sunday Visitor, for instance, said in an editorial that it “stands proudly . . . with our bishops in resisting this challenge.”

And Obama has plenty of reason to feel burned by the conference; after advocating for universal health care since the early 1900s, it opposed the actual law on the grounds that it included abortion funding, which was not the case.

Several of those on staff at the conference previously worked for conservative interest groups, and a faction of vocal anti-Obama bishops so disdain the president that one recently compared him to Hitler. The bishops conference regularly complains that it doesn’t have high-level access to the White House, but is it any wonder?

Some have expressed surprise that the University of Notre Dame has filed suit against the government; didn’t Notre Dame’s president warmly embrace Obama when he spoke at commencement on campus in 2009? Yes, but that was then.

Under criticism from conservatives who found it shocking that a pro-choice president would be honored by a Catholic university, my alma mater has tried hard to advertise its Catholicity and become much more vocal and visible on the abortion issue.

Another possible factor in the cooling of relations is that the Obama administration has since gone after Notre Dame, too, for its handling of sexual assault cases.

In the kind of double talk that has become a hallmark, Notre Dame President John Jenkins wrote Monday in an e-mail to alumni, “Let me say very clearly what this lawsuit is not about: It is not about preventing women from having access to contraception, nor even about preventing the government from providing such services. Many of our faculty, staff and students — both Catholic and non-Catholic — have made conscientious decisions to use contraceptives. As we assert the right to follow our conscience, we respect their right to follow theirs. And we believe that, if the government wishes to provide such services, means are available that do not compel religious organizations to serve as its agents.”

Yes, such means are available, so why are the litigants behaving as though the government hasn’t tried to interest them in a variety of ways that could actually happen?

One possibility is that it could interfere with the bishop-planned, pre-election “Fortnight for Freedom” public-relations campaign against Obama’s supposed “war on religion.” Bishops don’t generally make
U-turns, and they aren’t about to back off now.

Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer who anchors the She the People blog. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC. To read previous columns, go to postpolitics.com.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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