From left, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, of Louisville, KY, vice president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, of New York, president of the USCCB, and Monsignor David Malloy, general secretary of the USCCB. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

It’s a confusing time to be a religious leader.

The Obama administration’s controversial decision mandating that all employers provide insurance coverage for birth-control services flew in the face of the recent Supreme Court decision exempting religious groups from certain employment laws.

These contradictory decisions raise questions about how our country regulates religious leaders versus corporate and government leaders. At the heart of this debate is the issue of how we as a civil society give voice, meaning and influence to the discussion of the sacred. And as recent events show, it’s rarely a straightforward process.

Negotiations jujitsu

The late-in-the-week reframing of the birth-control decision by the Obama administration, pushing coverage from the religiously affiliated employer to the health insurer, was clever. It offers a nice example of a classic negotiations move,  where one party seeks to deftly recast the narrative by shifting accountability from the other party at the table to one who is not. This move often serves to reduce the tension between the conflicting parties as they move closer to a common ground.

But here it felt too much like a pure mental accounting move, not an actual substantive change, so it’s no wonder the Catholic bishops oppose it. It’s clear that religious organizations will still end up paying for the coverage, because the insurers will pass on the costs to their clients in some form, particularly if they are self-insured.

The muddy church and state divide

Now all sorts of commentators have cited surveys which find that most sexually active Catholic women use birth control. They use this evidence to argue in favor of the administration’s stance and discredit the Catholic bishops.

While the data may be compelling, this approach trivializes the core principle being debated: freedom of conscience. Regardless of how their members may act, religious leaders believe our constitution should protect them from being forced to act in a way that runs contrary to their beliefs.

Yet are they wrong? While we as a society espouse the separation of church and state, we act in pretty confused ways about it. Religious organizations currently receive state and federal funding for offering a broad range of social services.

The role of religious leaders in giving voice to the sacred

Part of why we are failing to find effective leadership on the current debate is that most discussions skirt the real thesis behind the Catholic and other churches’ stance on birth control. That is, the act of intercourse, because of its potential to create a new life, is quite special and should not be engaged in or treated lightly.

Our country has long held that there is value to civil society in giving expression to alternative points of view on public policy issues, particularly when they touch on what some may consider sacred.

As Noah Feldman writes in Divided by God (one of the most interesting books I have ever read on the separation of church and state), U.S. law “assumes that religion is profoundly meaningful” and “guarantees that citizens may draw on their own beliefs when they form opinions and make political choices.” Why then does there seem to be such a reluctance to engage meaningfully with religious leaders on this issue?

In the end, a decision must be made, either implicitly or explicitly. (After all, maintaining the status quo is also a form of decision.) For now, the social policy arguments seem to be winning out, namely that reproductive freedom and the affordability thereof are critical to women’s health and to controlling overall health-care costs.

But no matter what is decided in the current round, not all constituents will be happy, and the Obama administration will bear a cost. That is, of course, one of the enduring burdens of leadership – in any setting.

Sally Blount is the dean of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and an expert in the fields of negotiation and behavioral decision-making..

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