US liberals who support the Obama administration’s rule that requires insurance plans operated by Catholic-affiliated institutions, such as universities and hospitals, to offer contraception generally think that the criticisms raised by Catholic bishops, Republican politicians and others are driven by narrow political concerns, rather than the principle of religious freedom. They are right in one sense: there has been a good dose of politics injected, and some hypocrisy too, in the conservative opponents’ response. But that does not mean that there isn’t a legitimate underlying issue of religious freedom at stake.
After a week of protests, President Obama backtracked somewhat on the birth control rule, and on Friday announced a get-out clause. If a religious-affiliated institution does not want to include contraceptives in its health plan, it can now shift the cost of those contraceptives on to the health insurers themselves.
This compromise seemed to mollify many groups, in particular liberal Catholics. But Catholic bishops rejected it, and others saw it as a ‘scam’ or ‘fig leaf’. And some appeared to double-down on their opposition. Republican senator Marco Rubio has introduced a bill that would allow any employer to raise a religious objection and refuse to cover birth control, and many leading Republicans support it.
Before Obama’s compromise move, many liberals framed the issue as one of women’s civil rights rather than religious liberty. Democrat senator Kirsten Gillibrand declared: ‘We stand here ready to oppose any attack against women’s rights and women’s health.’ Some said the real object of opposition was ‘Obamacare’ itself, not the birth control feature. Some liberals contended that conservatives were getting worked up about something that has already existed and was accepted before. Prior to Obama’s federal rule, 28 of the 50 states already required most religious employers to cover prescription contraceptives, and many Catholic hospitals and universities complied. Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York has been one of the most outspoken bishops against the rule, but in his own backyard, the Catholic Manhattan and Fordham colleges have plans that cover birth control.
Now many liberals argue the conservatives’ intransigent response to the compromise reveals that their opposition had nothing to do with religious freedom principles at all, but was driven by conservative social-policy concerns and the attempt to gain narrow party-political advantage. As a New York Times editorial put it: ‘Those still angry about the mandate aren’t really concerned about religious freedom; they simply don’t like birth control and want to reduce access to it.’ TV host Rachel Maddow wrote in the Washington Post that ‘the right has picked a fight on this issue because religiosity is a convenient partisan cudgel to use against Democrats in an election year’.