The Contraception Coverage Debate

John ArmstrongPolitics, Separation of Church & State

I have tried to get my mind around the current debate over contraception and the freedom of religion in America. In my opinion this is not easy to do. I admire the Catholic bishops deeply and share their concerns in general. But I also see other factors at work in this controversy that are seemingly missed in the heat of this debate. 

What I do know is that the Obama administration made a huge miscalculation in its initial proposal, a proposal which clearly required Christians to violate their conscience. What I am not as sure about is the present compromise and where it will lead. The White House, if I am understanding their stance correctly, has granted a year to faith groups to find a way to comply with mandated health insurance that does not cover contraception. Report from the Capital (Baptist Joint Committee) says that "The White House has privately assured religious leaders–especially those who head the Catholic hospitals, universities and social service agencies most affected by the employer mandate–that President Obama will be directly involved in efforts to find a workaround that would satisfy their concerns" (February 2012). 

Is it possible to reconcile the contraception mandate with the conscience and practice of faith-based employers? This is still unclear to me. What is very clear is that faith-based groups, especially Catholic groups, have mounted a serious fight to defeat the new Obama rules. According to Report from the Capital the administration is hoping to develop a system like the one already used in Hawaii. This system, used in several states, mandates birth control coverage but mitigates it through a complex process that tries to accommodate religious employers. It is this claim that I have not studied fully and thus do not completely understand. In the present environment it is hard to get a good answer about this question since the whole debate has gone viral and become deeply political. 

Baptist Joint Committee Executive Director Brent Walker, who is clearly not a voice from the politically conservative side in this debate, says this exemption, while important, "is insufficient and should be broadened" (Report from the Capital). He adds, "At the same time, the exemption need not deprive anyone of health care coverage. The exemption could carry a duty of full disclosure by the employer as well as an obligation to help employees who want contraceptive coverage to get it elsewhere at a reasonable cost."

It thus seems reasonable to me to think that this administration hopes that this one year period will allow the heat over this issue to die down until after the election. Have they understood the issue or are they simply committed to pushing their universal coverage so far that they are actually willing to threaten our cherished religious freedom? Galen Carey of the National Association of Evangelicals thinks the answer is yes. He says, "No government has the right to compel its citizens to violate their conscience." He calls this direction a "dangerous precedent." 

While many religious conservatives have lumped a number of issues with this new one (same-sex marriage and gay rights in particular) the contraception decision deeply disappoints some progressive Catholic allies of the Obama administration who have regularly supported him on many other social issues. Concludes the Report from the Capital, "Those Catholics, like other Christians in the progressive camp, had expected the administration would expand the exemption." 

This report is non-political, which makes me believe this issue really is touching religious freedom, a cherish freedom that we cannot afford to compromise regardless of our views on contraception. While I do not think the Obama White House is openly determined to oppose religious freedom this decision does not appear to be crafted in a way that has a strong enough commitment to this vital American right. This is why I remain troubled but cautious. I am troubled, not by the rhetoric I hear but by the reality of some fuzzy thinking that is sending terribly mixed signals. Yet I am also cautious because I do not like the fact that this has become another bomb to throw in an election year. We already have enough political bombs lying around for one election year, at least for my personal taste.