CHARLOTTE, N.C. - A posse of liberal groups gathered at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday to defend President Barack Obama's contraceptive mandate and "not allow conservative politicians and religious leaders to redefine the meaning of religious liberty," per the press release announcing the event.
About five people, not including reporters, gathered to hear what they had to say. It was rainy outside, said the organizers, explaining the low turnout while tens of thousands of people were milling around downtown Charlotte.
Sara Hutchinson of Catholics for Choice, one of the organizers, said that true religious freedom is "the right to be respected as a moral decision maker, free to follow one's own conscience and religious beliefs." The contraceptive mandate, she said, was protecting individuals' abilities to choose to use contraceptives, adding, "The real threat today is not to religious liberty of the Catholic hierarchy but to the freedom of conscience of the rest of America's Catholics."
Hutchinson argued that institutions, like religious organizations, do not have religious freedom protections in this situation.
"The Conference of Catholic Bishops would like us to subscribe to their claim that a school, hospital, even a Taco Bell has a conscience," she said. "But individuals according to our Catholic vision have consciences and deserve to exercise that, not institutions. Individuals have conscience, institutions do not, and individuals deserve to have religious freedom protected."
Someone in the room asked, "What if you're an individual business owner?" referring to business owners objecting to paying for contraceptive coverage.
"You are serving as an institution in that capacity," said Hutchinson, pointing out that a business owner should not have religious freedom protection.
Harry Knox, the head of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, concurred.
"The first rule they teach you in pastoral care classes is, it's about empowering the individual to make the right decision for themselves," Knox said. "After that, your role as a pastor is to be quiet."
Women, he added, should thus have the religious liberty to decide to abort, and provided an example. "A child who has been conceived and is so sick that to continue a pregnancy would be a terrible injustice to that child, because she or he is in so much pain in the womb," he said. "To bring it to term would only force more suffering on it."
Robert George, a Catholic and a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University, described Hutchinson's posse as "silly as well as ideological."
"If the Vegetarian Society were being forced by a government mandate to serve meat at their annual 'animals are our friends, don't eat them' fundraising banquet, people on the left would suddenly discover that institutions based on shared convictions have rights of conscience," he wrote in an email. "Their problem is not in recognizing that institutions have rights of conscience; their problem is in recognizing that institutions whose teachings they don't agree with have rights of conscience."
Hutchinson's slam on Catholic bishops comes just as the head of those bishops makes his way to the Democratic convention. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who leads the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and has spearheaded the challenge to the contraceptive mandate, delivered the benediction at the Republican National Convention last week. He offered to do the same for the Democrats, but the party initially declined. On Tuesday, the news came that he would, after all, deliver the benediction.
The contraceptive mandate isn't something either party is talking about very much, but some Republican convention speakers specifically challenged it and Republican nominee Mitt Romney broadly promised to protect religious liberty in his acceptance speech. Democrats, on the opening night of their convention Tuesday, lauded the contraceptive mandate, and first lady Michelle Obama extolled women's ability to choose to have an abortion.
None of the speakers at the "religious liberty" event Tuesday overtly said, "Vote for Obama," but Knox subtly said the country had to figure out "how we will engage in conversation that will move us forward" and there were "forces in this country that want us to go backwards." (The Obama reelection campaign motto is "Forward.")
Knox served on Obama's Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships Advisory Council.
"No one in the abortion rights community, the reproductive justice community, believes in imposing their views on others," Knox noted.