Tag Archives: Obamacare

Obamacare Ruling: Political Parties at Prayer

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

It’s a measure of how confused our society is these days that the Affordable Care Act was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court on unlikely grounds by an unlikely majority. Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative, not Justice Anthony Kennedy, a centrist, sided with the liberal justices. And the law was valid not by virtue of the Constitution’s commerce clause, Roberts said in his opinion, but because penalties for not having insurance are really a tax, which falls within Congress’ powers.

I leave to others the ruling’s implications for the presidential campaign, the stock market and the price of hummus in Riyadh. But if the ruling itself was unpredictable, the reaction from the religious sector was entirely predictable.

Those within the conservative Protestant orbit were appalled. The liberal Protestant camp and Jewish groups were elated. And the Catholics, well, it’s complicated.

Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission was astonished that the court “did not see the bill for what it really is: a blatant violation of the personal freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution and perhaps a mortal blow to the concept of federalism.” By Land’s account, Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature should just give up and go home, the Tenth Amendment having suffered a mortal blow.

On the liberal side, Kathryn M. Lohre of the National Council of Churches appealed to a higher power: “We as churches follow the bold example of Jesus, who healed the sick, sometimes breaking the religious law that governed society.” Jesus always trumps the Constitution.

As for the Catholics, it depends on who you ask and about what part of the law. Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, was delighted at the decision because it will bring health care to more people. The bishops? Not so much.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has praised the law for taking a step in the direction of universal health care, but they continue to assert that as an employer they should not have to provide coverage for contraception, even if employees pay for that coverage themselves. The bishops say it’s an infringement on their religious liberty, a view that is difficult for many non-Catholic observers to accept.

After the ruling, the bishops said they do not favor repeal. “The decision of the Supreme Court neither diminishes the moral imperative to ensure decent health care for all, nor eliminates the need to correct the fundamental flaws” in the law, they said.

The Affordable Care Act is a good illustration of the partisanship that has infected the nation’s religious scene. Conservative Protestants claim, correctly, that they have joined the political fray late, following the mainline Protestant church that for decades had played a genteel political game and the Catholic Church that has been intertwined in politics since the days of Emperor Constantine.

But it’s more than a little disheartening to see entrenched political ideologies reflexively given a theological rationale. Even the more nuanced position of the Catholic bishops has overtones of a conservative political agenda.

Religious groups should be able to make judgments about laws and the political process based on their values, but when those groups become rigidly partisan, they lose their credibility as organizations beholden to no earthly power. Some of these groups — on both liberal and conservative sides — have long since lost their identity as anything other than a political party at prayer.

Reaction to the health care ruling simply offers one more example of that.

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Birth Control is the Bogeyman

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

So it is about contraception, after all.

In fighting insurance coverage for contraceptives under the new healthcare law, Catholic bishops and some Republican politicians repeatedly said they objected to a government mandate because it infringed on religious liberty.

A proposed federal rule to require religiously affiliated nonprofits to provide contraceptive coverage violates the Catholic belief that contraception is immoral, the bishops protested.  Although use of contraceptives is almost universal, even among Catholics, the bishops appealed to the public on the grounds the rule was about violating religious freedom, not contraception.

“When the government tampers with a freedom so fundamental to the life of our nation, one shudders to think what lies ahead,” Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

It worked. Even moderate Democrats and liberal Catholics urged Obama to accommodate the bishops’ objections.

And so last week, the Obama Administration announced the rule would be changed. While religious nonprofits must still provide health insurance, coverage of contraceptives would be offered only to employees who ask for it. However, the charities would not have to pay for it. Instead, insurance companies would pick up the tab since contraceptives are cheap, while pregnancy is expensive.

So the bishops’ concerns about religious freedom were placated, right? Guess again.

In an internal memo from five senior bishops, and later in a statement issued by the U.S. Conference, they still objected. A chief complaint is the government’s distinction between the church as a religious organization, which is exempt from the rule, and the church’s charities, which employ non-Catholic workers and serve the public.

The bishops argue, correctly, that the church’s charities are extensions of itself, undertaken out of religious convictions, so there should be no distinction. But now that the church’s charities are also exempt from the rule, why continue the fight?

The answer is that the rule might raise religious liberty issues for others, too. “Our concern remains strong that the government is creating its own definitions of who is ‘religious enough’ for full protection,” the bishops wrote.

And so was drawn a new battle line: business owners who are devout Catholics and object to the rule would not be exempt from it. “Secular employers must provide coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortion inducing drugs,” they wrote with disapproval.

In other words, it’s no longer about the church. Religious liberty is window dressing for the bishops’ real objection, birth control.

It’s worth noting that Catholic charities do a lot of good for the public, and they do so out of sincere Christian faith. It’s also true that some on the left have nothing but contempt for the Catholic Church and would just as soon force-feed birth-control pills to Catholic schoolgirls.

That said, the Obama administration has addressed the most important religious liberty concerns about contraception coverage.

A Public Religion Research Institute poll showed that 55 percent of Americans, and 52 percent of Catholics, supported the federal rule, even before it was softened. Bishops who insist the accommodation does not satisfy all their objections will be seen as the worst kind of religious extremists and play into the hands of those eager to portray them that way.

Republicans who used the bishops’ complaints for their own partisan purposes may continue to rail about Obama’s “war on religious liberty,” but it’s unlikely we will see them standing beside the bishops as they complain about contraception.

Because contraception is what this fight is now about.

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Middle Ground in War Over Birth Control

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

The Obama Administration is said to be waging a “war on religious liberty.” To call it war is hyperbole, but there is conflict over a new federal ruling that has antagonized Catholic leaders. One bishop said the administration is telling the church, “To hell with you.”

In January, the Department of Health and Human Services ruled that beginning in August employers who provide employee health insurance — including religious organizations — must cover contraceptive services.

Only one major denomination considers contraception immoral, and that’s the Catholic Church. The church itself is exempt from the HHS rule, but its charities, including Catholic schools and hospitals that serve the general public, would be forced to comply. The network of charities is extensive and highly symbolic given its attachment to the nation’s largest denomination.

Suppose a Catholic hospital employs Liz, a Jewish nurse, for example. If she worked for a secular hospital, she would receive insurance coverage for contraceptives. For others to deny her coverage would be discriminatory, says HHS. But in the Catholic view, contraception is wrong, period, and the church should not be compelled to provide it.

“We’re being told by the U.S. government that unless we only serve a very narrow group of people that are strictly Catholic, we have to comply with something that we feel is evil,” Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami told the Miami Herald this week. “What do I have to do then -– violate my conscience or get out of the insurance business?”

Under the new healthcare law, employers must provide insurance coverage to their employees, and Catholic organizations would face a fine if they dropped their employee insurance plans.

U.S. Sen Marco Rubio of Florida weighs in on the side of the bishops. Last week, he sponsored legislation to repeal the part of the law that requires coverage of contraceptive services.

Catholics have vowed political repercussions if the rule is fully implemented, and Republicans have been stoking the fires, hoping for some election-year fallout.

But according to the Guttmacher Institute, 98 percent of Catholic women practice some form of contraception. It’s unlikely that independent Catholic voters already defying church teaching will be swayed by the HHS ruling. And there’s not going to be a lot of outrage in the general public that Catholic bishops are somehow being denied religious freedom over a mandate to cover birth control.

The government’s job is to protect the interests of all citizens, including non-Catholics, and the ruling speaks up for our hypothetical nurse, Liz.

But the Catholic Church is the oldest Christian faith on the planet, and it did not suddenly decide last month it has objections to contraception. Whether you agree with their convictions – and I do not – it should at least be recognized that this is a long-established moral doctrine, not adopted for convenience.

I am usually uneasy about laws that require people to act against their beliefs. The Obama administration has an obligation to take into account the religious scruples of a church that offers important services to Americans. It should be able to bend the rule a bit. One proposed solution would essentially allow employees to purchase at their own expense an optional rider that would cover contraceptive services.

In fact, Catholic universities and hospitals in many states already offer insurance plans to employees that cover contraceptive services. Some even cover abortion. Presumably employees are paying for these provisions out of their own pockets. This renders some of the apocalyptic rhetoric from Catholic leaders and their allies about the HHS rule rather disingenuous.

It is incumbent on the bishops to recognize diversity of opinions and offer some suggestions about what to do for Liz under the new law. If all they can say to her is “Tough luck,” then they are holding her hostage to their consciences.

This conflict is resolvable, but only by good will on both sides.

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