WASHINGTON-As Congress begins moving forward on legislation to counter the Obama administration's contraceptive and abortifacient mandate, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held what was essentially a protest hearing Thursday on "freedom of conscience."
Republicans called a Catholic bishop, a rabbi, pastors, and leaders from an array of religious colleges to testify about the mandate amidst fireworks from Democrats who said Republicans were ignoring women's voices in the debate.
"I completely loathe the partisan nature of this discussion," said Rev. Matthew Harrison, the president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS), who testified against the mandate even though the LCMS is exempt because it is a church.
"Religious liberty is not a partisan political issue," added Ben Mitchell, a professor of moral philosophy at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and a Southern Baptist minister.
But the debate has taken a mostly partisan tone on Capitol Hill, as Republicans (and a handful of Democrats) push the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, bills that would address the contraceptive mandate but have been sitting in the House and Senate for months. Groups like Planned Parenthood are mobilizing against the bills, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he would allow a vote soon on the act, also known in the Senate as the Blunt amendment.
The bills have gained some traction since President Obama announced changes to the mandate last Friday, when he said insurance companies would have to provide contraceptives and abortifacients to employees at religious organizations for free (see "No details," Feb. 10).
The administration published a regulation saying that it would work out the details of that proposal over the next year, which mostly satisfied liberal Catholics who had opposed the original mandate, but many other religious groups remained concerned about conscience protections. Hundreds of prominent Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish scholars, pastors, and nonprofit representatives signed a statement this week calling the mandate, with the new changes, "unacceptable."
Media reports as well as members of the administration had previously cited Catholic Charities' support for the new proposal, but the group posted the following statement Thursday on its website, which committee chairman Darrell Issa read aloud at the hearing: "We have not endorsed the accommodation to the [Health and Human Services] mandate that was announced by the administration last Friday. We unequivocally share the goal of the U.S. Catholic bishops to uphold religious liberty and will continue to work with the [U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops] towards that goal."
Harrison explained to the House committee why he opposed the mandate even though his church is exempt: "We are deeply concerned that our consciences may be soon martyred by a single stroke of the keyboard." The LCMS recently had a unanimous win at the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, one of the biggest religious freedom rulings in decades. (See "Church's authority 'alone,'" Jan. 11.)
"This whole conversation is utterly surreal," Harrison told the committee. "I find it totally offensive that we are subject to accommodation and grandfather clauses. You cannot accommodate and grandfather the First Amendment."
John Garvey, the president of the Catholic University of America in Washington, said the mandate reflects a "narrow" understanding that religion is "only when you're in your church and on your knees."
Most Democrats criticized the religious leaders (and less notably, their Republican colleagues) throughout the hearing, calling down "shame" on them for appearing to testify, and accusing them of wanting to criminalize contraception.
"It seems you're saying no women should have access to [contraceptives], and they should be criminal," Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said to the religious leaders. Maloney dramatically walked out of the hearing, along with Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C. (who likened the committee to an "autocratic regime"), because the chairman wouldn't allow one of the Democratic witnesses, a female college student, to testify. But after enough time passed to make her point, Maloney returned to the hearing to question the religious leaders.
Maloney described widespread efforts to "roll back the fundamental rights of women," and declared, "We will not be forced back to that dark and primitive era. … No one should have the power to impose their faith on you … simply because they work for you."
"It can hardly be said that this [contraceptives] is unavailable," said Bishop William Lori, who chairs the U.S. Catholic Church's committee for religious liberty. "It is available very, very widely."
Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., also made clear, "I don't think there's any movement in Congress to ban contraception."
Rep. Gerry Connelly, D-Va., called down "shame" on the religious leaders for coming to testify. "You are here to testify that your rights are being trampled on-an overstatement if there ever was one," he said. "I'm very sad you've chosen to participate … as if people are going to jail over this. … Everyone knows this is not true."
Harrison, for one, has said he would go to jail before violating his conscience. "We must obey God rather than men, and we will," he said.
Representatives from the Protestant churches and colleges emphasized that they don't have moral objections to contraception, but to covering abortifacients, Plan B, and Ella, which are Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptives included in the mandate.
"It is ridiculous to claim that organizations like mine don't care about women's health," testified Samuel Oliver, the president of East Texas Baptist University. "We already cover preventive services including contraception under our employee's health plan. We simply object to a few drugs … that cause abortion. …We are offended that this administration says we aren't religious enough to have our religious beliefs respected."
Democrats entered into the official record information about how many religious colleges cover contraceptives. Bishop Lori said that even if a minority of Americans oppose the use of contraceptives, "Does that give the government the right to punish that minority belief with coercive power? The answer is no."