Against that backdrop, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), visited the Oval Office at the beginning of November for what he described as an "extraordinarily friendly" meeting with President Obama.
"I found the president of the United States to be very open to the sensitivities coming from the Catholic community -- that we're worried about an intrusion on religious liberty," Dolan said during the USCCB's fall general assembly on Nov. 14. Dolan wouldn't go into specifics of his conversation with the president, but he said, "I left there feeling a bit more at peace about this issue than when I entered."
Obama is considering expanding the religious exemption of the health care law, giving more latitude for religious organizations that don't want to pay for coverage of contraceptives, sterilization, or abortifacients. Kathleen Sebelius, the Department of Health and Human Services secretary, announced in August that the health care mandate for preventative services would include contraceptives. She also detailed a paper-thin religious exemption from that mandate: Only religious groups whose central purpose is "the inculcation of religious values" qualify for an exemption, and the group's employees must be primarily of one faith and primarily serve members of that faith -- leaving out most religious hospitals, relief organizations and the like.
Some religious groups asserted that Jesus' ministry would not count as religious under this guideline if serving people of different beliefs is disqualifying. HHS is reviewing public comments it received this fall on the contraceptives rule and the exemption. Without other changes, the proposed rule goes into effect in August 2012.
HHS official Richard Sorian wrote during the public comment period in late August that the department is "open to other definitions of 'religious organizations' to ensure organizations that have religious objections to covering contraception can choose whether or not to cover these services." But Sebelius said when she announced the rule that not covering contraceptives in insurance plans "would be like not covering flu shots." The department's definition of contraceptives includes "morning after pills" such as "ella," Plan B and Next Choice, all of which can block implantation after fertilization and have abortifacient qualities.
Catholics weren't the only ones to object to the rule. Representatives from religious organizations across the spectrum -- the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Evangelicals for Social Action, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, Prison Fellowship, World Relief, the National Association of Evangelicals, and Notre Dame Law School, among others -- protested the exemption, saying it was inadequate.
Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land wrote in a letter to the administration that if the exemption is not broadened, "religious organizations will be forced to choose between their consciences and their social service work."
"Surely," Land wrote, "many will choose to terminate operation of these services rather than provide contraceptives that would violate their sincerely held beliefs. Such an outcome would be devastating."
The Council on Christian Colleges and Universities, representing 137 Protestant schools, also wrote a letter saying the mandate "will force most if not all of our institutions to violate their religious consciences."
In late November, Belmont Abbey College, a 1,700-student Catholic school tied to a monastery in North Carolina, filed a lawsuit against the federal government over the preventative coverage mandate. The college, which doesn't qualify as religious under the current exemption because some of its students and faculty aren't Catholic, was the first religious organization to sue over the matter. Soon after the school filed the lawsuit, the administration indicated that it was considering broadening the religious exemption.
"I hope they're feeling the pressure," said Lori Windham, a lawyer with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing Belmont Abbey College in the health care case. "If a law is going to burden religion, it has to be neutral and generally applicable. This law is not neutral and generally applicable." The Becket Fund lawyers argue that the administration gave exemptions to certain businesses like McDonald's and teachers' organizations, but gave almost no protection to religious groups, which have explicit constitutional protection. Belmont Abbey's lawsuit denounces not just the mandated coverage of contraceptives, sterilization, and abortifacients, but also "related education and counseling." The lawsuit says the mandate "forces Belmont Abbey College to fund government-dictated speech that is directly at odds with its own speech and religious teachings."
Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and some Democrats in Washington are in uproar at the possibility of the change to the exemption. Planned Parenthood sent a message to supporters on Nov. 16, saying that "Tea Party Republicans and anti-women's health groups ... are trying to take away women's access to birth control -- it's as simple as that." Two days later, a more panicked email went out: "There's no time to lose. We've learned that President Obama may decide at any moment whether to take away birth control coverage from millions of women." Senate Democrats raised the issue on a conference call with White House officials, dismayed at the potential reversal of what one Democrat called "the progress made in favor of reproductive rights."
The administration hasn't indicated when it may issue its decision on the religious exemption, but the government has just under two months to respond to Belmont Abbey's lawsuit. The religious community isn't cheering yet. "While there is the real possibility of a broader exemption, it remains to be seen whether it will protect all religious organizations and the conscience rights of individuals and insurers," said Bishop William Lori at the USCCB's fall general assembly.
Meanwhile, in an issue that is unrelated to the health care law but related to the battle over religious liberty, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops lost a federal grant this year and won't be able to work with human trafficking victims because of its position on abortion. The conference worked with trafficking victims for several years and was rated by HHS reviewers as the second-best applicant for the grant this year. But after the Obama administration issued a new edict this year saying it would give "strong preference" to applicants who provide or refer women for abortion, contraception and sterilization services, the conference lost the grant.
Emily Belz writes for World News Service, where this story first appeared. With reporting by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.
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