WASHINGTON-Much to the chagrin of his religious left supporters and even some of his staffers, President Barack Obama announced on Jan. 20 that most religious groups must provide full medical insurance coverage for contraceptives, including abortion-causing drugs like Plan B and Ella. Facing an August 2013 deadline if Obama is reelected, religious groups are now considering whether to violate their consciences, or end insurance coverage for their employees and pay hefty fines to the federal government.
A Democratic source who knows of internal administration discussions but opposed the final decision told WORLD-others have confirmed this-that Bill Daley, who recently resigned as Obama's chief of staff, argued for a broader religious exemption, as did Joshua DuBois, the head of the faith-based office. But Stephanie Cutter, President Obama's deputy campaign manager, trumpeted the contraceptive/abortion decision in an email to supporters that she sent on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision: "[O]ur opponents have been waging a war on women's health. ... The president has stood firm against these attacks." Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America had lobbied the administration furiously in the last few months to require religious organizations to submit to the contraceptive/abortion mandate.
Obama allies such as the Catholic Health Association expressed "disappointment" with the president's decision. "This was a missed opportunity to be clear on appropriate conscience protection," stated association head Carol Keehan. "President Obama lost my vote yesterday," wrote Michael Sean Winters of National Catholic Reporter: "I accuse you, Mr. President, of treating shamefully those Catholics who went out on a limb to support you."
Sojourners also argued for an expanded religious exemption and called the Obama decision "a step backward." Evangelicals for Social Action, a left-leaning group, signed a letter in the fall with more than a dozen other organizations across the spectrum, including Notre Dame Law School, World Relief, and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, calling for the administration to broaden the exemption.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius argued that the decision "strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services." The "balance" she referred to is allowing religious groups that don't currently offer contraceptives and abortion-causing drugs an extra year to comply, giving them until August 2013. Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, stated, "In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences."
The only exemption from the mandate is for groups that have the "inculcation of religious values" as their primary mission and who serve and employ people of their faith-which essentially covers only churches and seminaries, not religious-based colleges and social service groups. The churches that do fall under the exemption and don't provide contraceptives will be required to provide information to employees about where to obtain contraceptives.
A Colorado Christian University lawsuit filed in December against the contraceptive mandate noted, "The government's mandate unconstitutionally coerces Colorado Christian to violate its deeply held religious beliefs under threat of heavy fines and penalties." The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing Colorado Christian, expects other religious groups to add their names to lawsuits on this matter in the near future.
Ironically, the administration's mandate comes on the heels of a unanimous Supreme Court ruling-Hosanna-Tabor v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission-that banned the government from interfering in a church school's employment decisions. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the chair of the U.S. Catholic Church's committee on pro-life activities, told parishioners at a mass on Jan. 23, "Never before in our U.S. history has the federal government forced citizens to directly purchase what violates our beliefs."