From San Francisco, where I live, the controversy over the White House decision to require church-affiliated employers to provide contraception in their employee health care benefits has felt like an argument about the barn door's being open years after the horse got out of the barn.
In 1996, San Francisco effectively forced Catholic Charities to offer domestic-partner benefits for same-sex couples (without calling them domestic-partner benefits) in order to receive city funds to care for the sick. A 1999 law made California one of 28 states that now require employers to include contraception in health care plans that cover prescriptions.
Yet the Obama administration boldly went where no state (not even California) had gone before when it announced that under the Affordable Care Act, all employers must provide birth control as part of their health insurance packages. Churches would be exempt, but Catholic hospitals, universities and charities would not.
States have legal loopholes. In California, for example, a church-affiliated institution can get around the mandate by self-insuring or not offering prescription drug coverage. The only way out of the Obamacare mandate is to move to another country. Otherwise, there's no exit.
On Friday, the White House announced an alleged compromise: Religious organizations can opt out of paying for contraceptives, but their health care insurers must provide contraceptives to the organizations' employees on their own. Because "no religious institution will have to provide these services directly" -- as President Barack Obama claimed -- the administration offers the illusion that religious organizations aren't paying for contraceptives.
As a believer in birth control and family planning, I suppose I should be thrilled. Except that President Obama just trampled on the first part of the First Amendment, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
"The government needs to stay out of the church," argued Carol Hogan of the California Catholic Conference. "Read the Constitution. The prohibition is on the government, not on the church."
For its part, the administration keeps stretching the English language to the brink. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services frames the issue as one of "access" to "preventive health care services." "Access" no longer means being able to obtain something. "Access" now means being able to get something for free and making someone else -- even someone who objects on moral grounds -- pay for it.
Supporters claim that the mandate is no big deal because 90 percent of Catholics practice birth control in violation of church doctrine. That tells me that there never was an access problem.
But there is a "choice" problem. In a raw exercise of power, the Obama administration has decreed that religious organizations must reject their deeply held beliefs and hand out Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptives -- including the morning-after pill.
Said Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, "We used to say that if you're pro-choice, you should support conscience clauses."
Now it turns out that Americans of all religious persuasions are free to choose, as long as they choose to agree with Obama.