People For the American Way Foundation’s Twelve Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics is grounded in our commitment to religious liberty and church-state separation, and in the recognition that fundamental constitutional values sometimes come into creative tension. Where to draw the lines in any particular situation can be a challenge, and even people who generally agree on constitutional principles may disagree about how they should apply on a given policy question. Nothing demonstrates this complexity more than the Obama administration’s efforts to ensure that American women have access to contraception and reproductive health services while addressing objections that such requirements would violate the conscience of some religious employers.
Religious Right groups and their allies at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have for months been portraying the Obama administration’s proposed rules requiring insurance coverage of contraception as totalitarian threats to religious liberty, even after the administration adjusted its initial proposal to address those concerns. Some Religious Right leaders are sticking with their ludicrous “tyranny” message even after the Obama administration today released a further revision that broadens the number of religious groups that will be exempt from new requirements while still guaranteeing women access to contraception.
In describing the policy proposal, HHS Deputy Director of Policy and Regulation Chiquita Brooks-LaSure told reporters, “No nonprofit religious institution will be forced to pay for or provide contraceptive coverage, and churches and houses of worship are specifically exempt.” Under the plan, women who work for such organizations would have access to no-cost contraception coverage through other channels.
Here’s where it gets interesting: The new proposal won praise both from Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America – and from right-wing ideologue Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, who called it “a sign of goodwill by the Obama administration toward the Catholic community.”
In contrast, the proposal was slammed by the far-right Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America – and by Catholics for Choice, which said, “While protecting contraceptive access under the ACA is a win for women, the administration’s caving in to lobbying from conservative religious pressure groups is a loss for everyone.” Catholics for Choice warned that a broadened exemption for religious groups “gives religious extremists carte blanche to trump the rights of others” and that women working at Catholic organizations “are wondering whether they’ll be able to get the same coverage as millions of other women, or if their healthcare just isn’t as important to the president as their bosses’ beliefs about sex and reproduction.”
James Salt, executive director of Catholics United, portrayed the approach as a win-win. “As Catholics United said from the very beginning, reasonable people knew it was right to be patient and hopeful that all sides could come together to solve this complex issue. The White House deserves praise in alleviating the Church’s concerns.”
Leading advocates for women’s heath praised the new approach. Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood said the group would be taking a look at the details, but said “This policy makes it clear that your boss does not get to decide whether you can have birth control.” A statement from NARAL Pro-Choice America said the group“is optimistic that these new draft regulations will make near-universal contraceptive coverage a reality.”
Meanwhile, anti-choice advocates that have been pushing for rules that would exempt even individual business owners who have objections to providing contraceptive coverage for their employees complained that the new exemption would not extend to private businesses.
Concerned Women for America President Penny Nance said the new rules show Obama’s “intent to trample the religious liberties of Americans” and said, “When religious groups and individual Americans are forced to deny their deeply held religious convictions, it is not called “balance,” it’s called “tyranny.” The Family Research Council repeated Religious Right characterizations of the previous accommodation as an “accounting gimmick.”
People For the American Way believes that the government has a compelling interest in ensuring that women have access to family planning services. Indeed, Dr. Linda Rosentock, dean of the UCLA's school of public health and a member of the Institute of Medicine committee that was part of the review process on the HHS regulations, testified last year that the Centers for Disease Control has ranked family planning as one of the major public health achievements of the 20th Century.
People For the American Way is also deeply concerned about the efforts by Religious Right groups and its conservative Catholic allies to re-define “religious liberty” in unprecedented ways that would allow groups to take taxpayer dollars without abiding by reasonable regulations such as anti-discrimination requirements – and to allow private employers and others to claim exemption from all kinds of laws based on “religious” or “moral grounds.”
In this case, we believe the Obama administration has acted in good faith to promote the nation’s public health interests while addressing concerns that those policies might burden religious liberty. Our courts have long recognized that religious liberty, like the freedom of speech, is not absolute, and that policymakers must often balance competing interests. That is what the administration has done.