The Obama administration’s initial, parsimonious exemption

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.


  1. sailor1031 says

    “On the left, E.J. Dionne…”

    “liberal columnists like Dionne…”

    In what fucking universe pray tell is E J Dionne a “liberal” or “on the left”?

  2. moarscienceplz says

    Wasn’t one of the main objections to having JFK as President the fear that he would be “in thrall to the Pope”? And yet here we have five Supreme Court Justices who are Catholic and who twist themselves into pretzels to find a justification to give preferential treatment to one particular view (which just happens to match the Catholic Churches view). Where are the screams about THEM being in thrall to the Pope?

  3. Ed says

    In fairness, a lot of the anti-Catholicism generations ago was xenophobic bigotry against anyone whose family came on a boat not called the Mayflower. Having an Irish father and being a practicing Catholic didn’t make JFK or millions of other people from similar backgrounds mindless foot soldiers of the Pope. These right wing nut Catholics are the Catholic equivalent of the Moral Majority. I’d like it even less if the Court was stuffed with Baptists in the tradition of Falwell.

  4. carlie says

    “The lesson […] 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 a […] that will please those intent on making a last-ditch political statement”

    Fill in the blanks as you wish, and you have the explanation for the entire Republican side of government since 2008.

  5. Claire Ramsey says

    I totally realize that the goddamn bishops have been handed a big victory on a fabulous porcelain plate. And it is horrible. And it is going to lead to more ugly business from politicians, disciples, and meat puppets. The ignorant the better, am I right? Don’t we all agree that the temperature on Mars is exactly like “the temperature” on Earth? Am I right?

  6. Blanche Quizno says

    Yes, Ross Asshat, if we’d only allowed the religious to pick and choose which laws they were willing to follow in the FIRST place, it never would have come to this.

  7. Blanche Quizno says

    @1: In what fucking universe pray tell is E J Dionne a “liberal” or “on the left”?

    This is not the first time I’ve heard “liberal” used in a context where it sounded entirely wrong to me. There are clearly a few different definitions of “liberal” floating about, and you can’t ever be sure which one the person who writes “liberal” is using.

    I have found “progressive” to be the far safer qualifier, actually.

  8. Latverian Diplomat says

    If your first reaction to anything involving the Catholic Church Hierarchy’s opinion on reproductive rights is that
    “maybe they have a legitimate concern,” how can you call yourself a progressive?

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