This is a depressing story, which I didn’t know about – the role of liberal columnists in stoking the fires of rage about the “religious exemption” from the ACA birth control mandate. Patricia Miller at Religion Dispatches tells that story.
On the left, E.J. Dionne calls for a “broad public consultation with religious groups” on the issue to avoid another firestorm:
After first providing a far-too-narrow exemption from the contraception mandate for explicitly religious nonprofits, President Obama came up with an accommodation that provides birth control coverage through alternative means….
It’s unfortunate that the Obama administration’s initial, parsimonious exemption for religious groups helped ignite the firestorm that led to Hobby Lobby. It might consider this lesson as it moves, rightly, to issue an executive order to ban discrimination against LGBT people by government contractors. I’ve long believed that anti-gay behavior is both illiberal and, if I may, un-Christian.
Far too narrow…parsimonious…So religions should have broad rights to ignore laws that everyone else has to obey, eh?
While on the right, Ross Douthat, who has backed broad religious exemptions, opines that “the contraceptive mandate itself would have never become a major political flashpoint if the administration had included a more expansive religious exemption from the get-go.”
The takeaway is remarkably similar for two men from opposition ends of the political spectrum: that the controversy over the contraceptive mandate could have been avoided if nonprofit religious organizations were exempted from the get-go. But this misses the fundamental problem with the so-called compromise. The problem wasn’t that the exemption that the administration crafted wasn’t broad enough. The problem was that the administration was trying to respond with a policy solution to what was essentially a political statement by the Catholic bishops.
And you know what? The Catholic bishops aren’t supposed to be running the US government. They really aren’t.
The firestorm over the policy resulted because liberal columnists like Dionne and the National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters came into the conversation about religious exemptions—a conversation that women’s health and religious liberty advocates had been having for over a decade—in mid-stream. They were apparently unaware of the reproductive health policy issues at stake, the previous precedents that had been set, or the bishops’ long-term efforts to use conscience exemptions to beat back efforts to expand access to contraception. It was their off-the-cuff, emotional responses to the mandate, which they perceived as an attack (Winters accused the administration of “punch[ing] us Catholics in the nose” while Dionne wrote that “Obama threw his progressive Catholic allies under the bus”) that made the original exemption politically untenable, not the formulation of the mandate itself.
That; that’s what I didn’t know. I’ve always thought E J Dionne was a platitudinous jerk, but I didn’t know he was as thick as that.
The fact that the bishops refused to even sign on to the so-called compromise shows that for them the whole point of the exercise was to make a political statement about the moral unacceptability of non-procreative sex (especially for unmarried women), to save face about the fact that most Catholics use contraception, and to gin up “religious liberty” concerns that would backstop their campaign against same-sex marriage.
The lesson of the contraceptive mandate debacle isn’t that Obama should attempt to craft a resolution that will please both sides. It’s that it’s probably not possible to craft an exemption that will please those intent on making a last-ditch political statement that they won’t accept same-sex marriage without giving them carte blanche to ride roughshod over the rights of others.
The bishops have won a huge battle, and hardly anybody realizes it; even most people who are horrified by the Hobby Lobby ruling don’t realize it.