Give Barack Obama credit: The man has chutzpah. How else do you describe a president who uses his executive authority to unilaterally manufacture a government mandate for contraception coverage — a mandate with no conscience protection for the vast majority of religious institutions to which it applies — and then, when confronted with bipartisan backlash, proposes a “religious accommodation” that amounts to little more than a cheap accounting trick?
Like the Great Stupak Sellout of 2010 — the president’s toothless executive order that purported to close abortion-funding loopholes in Obamacare but actually did no such thing — Obama’s much-touted compromise on the contraceptive mandate is a joke. Announced Friday in a hasty and cynical attempt to bury the story in the weekend news cycle, this tweak of the administration’s original rule still forces Catholic institutions to provide insurance that covers medications and services the Catholic Church considers immoral — including sterilization procedures and the “morning-after pill,” a drug that can destroy embryos by preventing their implantation in the uterine lining. The only difference between the rule’s current incarnation and its former one: Obama says that insurance companies, not religious employers, will be the ones to foot the bill for the objectionable coverage.
The economics of the compromise are laughable. Does the president actually believe — or expect Americans to believe — that insurance companies will provide free birth control to women without stealthily passing the cost to religious employers or spreading it across all policyholders? The “free” benefit Obama purports to offer women is not free at all. It is a hidden tax on those policyholders who — because of age, life circumstances or ethical objections — do not use contraception. As University of Chicago finance professor John Cochrane noted recently in The Wall Street Journal, “There is a liberal dream that by mandating coverage the government can make something free,” but “every increase in coverage means an increase in premiums.”
The president’s new plan also fails to address the religious liberty questions at the heart of this debate. Although embraced by such reliable Obama cheerleaders as Catholic Health Association president Sr. Carol Keehan, as well as the leaders of Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America, the alleged compromise does nothing to ease the conscience concerns of those Catholic education, health care and charitable leaders who regard institutional fidelity to Catholic doctrine as a paramount concern. Nor does it offer any relief to religious organizations that self-insure or to individual employers — Catholic or otherwise — who object to these services and wish to operate their private businesses in harmony with their religious convictions.
For its part, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has pledged to use the legislative process and the courts to seek full revocation of the mandate, which the bishops rightly see as “the only complete solution to this religious liberty problem.” They are joined in their efforts by a growing coalition of religious leaders that regard this attack on Catholic conscience rights as but one battle in a larger war against religious liberty being waged by the Obama administration.
The administration’s pattern of disregarding religious liberty concerns is well documented. In the past year, Obama’s Justice Department has argued in court that defenders of traditional marriage — the most visible segment of which are observant Catholics and bishops — should be regarded in law as the equivalent of racists. His National Labor Relations Board has issued rulings against two Catholic colleges, saying that they are not sufficiently Catholic to warrant religious exemptions from federal labor law — a breach of the longstanding precedent in which religious bodies, not government officials, decide who qualifies as a member of a particular church. And his Justice Department recently argued before the Supreme Court for the effective gutting of the “ministerial exception” that allows religious bodies to hire and fire employees without government interference. In a unanimous rebuke last month, all nine Supreme Court justices rejected the administration’s position as a violation of the First Amendment.
Yet Obama remains undaunted, pressing forward with his controversial contraception mandate despite the mounting election-year backlash. His refusal to offer a meaningful compromise on this issue should give Catholic swing voters serious pause when considering a second Obama term. If this is how the president addresses their religious liberty concerns in an election year, just imagine how he will treat them when he no longer needs the Catholic vote.