Reuters NewMedia - February 15, 2012
(Reuters) - Catholic bishops, energized by a battle over
contraception funding, are planning an aggressive campaign to
rally Americans against a long list of government measures which
they say intrude on religious liberty.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops plans to work with other
religious groups, including evangelical Christians, on an
election-year public relations campaign that may include TV and
radio ads, social media marketing and a push for pastors and
priests to raise the subject from the pulpit.
"We want to make it something that will get peoples' attention,"
said Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn.
The bishops spent the past few weeks pressing President Barack
Obama to exempt religious employers from a federal mandate that
all health insurance plans offer free birth control.
Obama agreed to modify the mandate a bit, so that religious
employers wouldn't have to pay for contraceptive coverage
directly. That satisfied some Catholic groups, but the bishops
were not mollified. They want the mandate repealed altogether.
And now, they are aiming higher still, lobbying Congress to enact
a law that would let any employer opt out of covering any medical
treatment he disagreed with as a matter of his personal faith.
So, for instance, a pizzeria owner who objected to childhood
vaccinations on religious grounds would be able to request an
insurance plan that did not cover them, in effect overriding a
federal requirement that vaccinations be provided free with any
Leaving coverage decisions up to each employers' conscience might
create chaos in the marketplace, "but chaos is sometimes the
price you pay for freedom," said Richard Land, the president of
the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty
Commission, who is backing the bishops whole-heartedly.
Democrats, who control the Senate, are likely to block any bill
with such broad opt-out provisions.
But supporters, including prominent Republicans, say they will
keep pushing for the change, which fits into a wider theme of
defending individual freedoms against government intrusion which
is expected to play prominently in the November election.
MESSAGE FROM THE PULPIT
Along with the Southern Baptist Convention, the National
Association of Evangelicals stands ready to contribute money and
manpower to the bishops' campaign, said Galen Carey, an
association vice president.
The group is also considering the unprecedented step of asking
pastors of every evangelical denomination across the country to
read their congregations an open letter protesting the
contraception mandate as an assault on religious liberty.
Liberal groups are already launching counter-attacks.
This week, NARAL Pro-Choice America, which works to keep abortion
legal and expand contraceptive access, spent $250,000 to air
radio ads in four swing states that will be crucial to the
presidential election - Colorado, Florida, Virginia and
The ads urge support for Obama and his effort to ensure that
"women of all faiths, no matter where they work," can get free
birth control with their health insurance.
More than 30 organizations supporting Obama teamed up to create
the Coalition to Protect Women's Health Care, which has started
an online petition and plans further action.
The coalition includes two unions that represent millions of
workers and have well-honed networks for getting out political
messages, the Service Employees International Union and the
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Obama's supporters say the president went far enough to
accommodate religious institutions when he announced last week
that they wouldn't have to pay for free birth control as part of
their insurance plans; he said instead their insurers would be
required to pick up the costs.
The bishops denounced this as a gimmick that doesn't solve
anything, especially for the many religious hospitals and schools
that self-insure their employees.
"Reasonable people should be able to work through the details of
this and find common ground," said John Gehring, Catholic
outreach coordinator for the liberal group Faith in Public Life.
"But election-year politics doesn't make for cool heads."
BATTLE FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
The Conference of Catholic Bishops began preparing months ago for
a battle royale over religious freedom. Last fall, the conference
bulked up its staff, hiring a lawyer who had devoted his career
to religious liberty cases and a lobbyist to press the cause in
Washington. The group also created a special committee on
religious liberty, chaired by Bishop Lori.
In a September letter announcing the committee, Archbishop
Timothy Dolan declared that religious freedom "is now
increasingly and in unprecedented ways under assault in America."
He and other officials offer many examples of that perceived
On the federal level, the Obama administration has cancelled or
threatened to cancel contracts awarded to Catholic charities for
work to prevent HIV and to help victims of sex trafficking. The
administration says the charities have to provide services such
as condoms, emergency contraception and abortion referrals to
maintain the contracts; the charities protest that such
conditions violate their religious faith.
Several states, meanwhile, have required adoption agencies that
receive public funds to treat same-sex couples on par with any
other prospective foster or adoptive parent. Catholic Charities
object, saying the church doesn't sanction gay and lesbian
relationships. Rather than comply with the laws, bishops in
Illinois, Massachusetts and Washington D.C. have shut down
Catholic adoption agencies.
The bishops portray this as an out-and-out war on free exercise
But secular and liberal groups say no one's assailing the freedom
to worship, to proselytize - or even to perform social services,
such as placing needy children in loving homes, according to
It is only when a religious institution accepts taxpayer money to
do such work that religious freedom must take a back seat to
secular laws, said Marci Hamilton, a constitutional scholar at
Cardozo School of Law.
Courts nationwide have repeatedly ruled that religious groups
must follow the same rules as everyone else when holding a
government contract, Hamilton said. Any institution that can't in
good faith follow those rules shouldn't apply for public funding,
With regard to contraceptive care, courts in New York and
California have upheld state laws - similar to the federal
mandate - that insurance plans, including those sponsored by
religious employers, must cover birth control if they cover other
It is unclear whether such nuances will filter into the public
debate over religious freedom and contraceptive coverage.
Both sides say they believe public opinion is firmly in their
corner - and they're determined to keep it that way with a steady
drumbeat of snappy soundbites.
More than 100 university professors and religious leaders from
different faiths released a letter of protest against the
administration Tuesday that was headlined with a single word:
"Unacceptable." The letter called the Obama administration
"morally obtuse" and blasted the contraceptive coverage mandate
as "a grave violation of religious freedom."
On the other side, the American Civil Liberties Union held a
press conference to accuse the bishops of playing politics in the
name of faith. The bishops are promoting "a distorted view of
religious liberty - one that has no basis in law or the
Constitution," said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on
Freedom of Religion and Belief.