WASHINGTON — Speaker of the House John Boehner has vowed to pass legislation to remedy the First Amendment concerns posed by a federal law requiring private employers to provide contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs in their health-insurance plans.

Yesterday, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform invited religious leaders to a high-profile hearing, “Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?” . The aim was to showcase how the new policy threatened the free exercise of religion, and GOP members of the committee achieved that goal — in part.

Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., and other invited speakers got a chance to outline the reason they rejected the original mandate and why President Obama’s “accommodation” did not resolve their objections.

However, the questions and comments by House Committee members also revealed that the church-state conflict has morphed into a complex and risky election-year “wedge issue,” with unpredictable results for both political parties.

Will the Democrats and their president be labeled as “anti-Catholic” or will the GOP be viewed as anti-contraception — working toward a total ban on artificial birth control?

During the House hearing, the administration’s allies sought to push the discussion from presidential overreach to a debate about women’s health services.

Sitting before the House committee,  representatives from Catholic, Protestant and Jewish groups outlined their concerns with the mandate, approved on Jan. 20 by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Invited witnesses representing Catholic institutions included Bishop Lori, who chairs the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Freedom at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; John Garvey, the president of The Catholic University of America, and William Thierfelder, president of Belmont Abbey College, a Catholic institution in North Carolina that has filed suit against the federal government, challenging the contraception mandate.

Additional witnesses included Rev. Matthew Harrison, the president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Rabbi Meir Soleveichik from Yeshiva University, and leaders and administrators from Baptist churches. A second panel later in the day included two women and a medical doctor—though Democrats made much of the fact that the Republican-led committee had not invited a woman to be included in the first panel.

The Kosher Deli Analogy

Bishop Lori, in his testimony, began with an analogy that used Jewish opposition to the consumption of pork as a placeholder for Catholic opposition to contraception.

In “The Parable of the Kosher Deli,” Bishop Lori said:

“Once upon a time, a new law is proposed, so that any business that serves food must serve pork. There is a narrow exception for kosher catering halls attached to synagogues, since they serve mostly members of that synagogue, but kosher delicatessens are still subject to the mandate.

“The Orthodox Jewish community — whose members run kosher delis and many other restaurants and grocers besides — expresses its outrage at the new government mandate. And they are joined by others who have no problem eating pork — not just the many Jews who eat pork, but people of all faiths — because these others recognize the threat to the principle of religious liberty. …

“Meanwhile, those who support the mandate respond, ‘But pork is good for you. It is, after all, the other white meat.’ Other supporters add, ‘So many Jews eat pork, and those who don’t should just get with the times.’ Still others say, ‘Those Orthodox are just trying to impose their beliefs on everyone else.’”

Bishop Lori stated, “The fact that some (or even most) Jews eat pork is simply irrelevant. The fact remains that some Jews do not — and they do not out of their most deeply held religious convictions. ...

“The charge that the Orthodox Jews are imposing their beliefs on others has it exactly backwards. Again, the question generated by a government mandate is whether the government will impose its belief that eating pork is good on objecting Orthodox Jews. Meanwhile, there is no imposition at all on the freedom of those who want to eat pork. That is, they are subject to no government interference. …”

“This story has a happy ending,” he said, noting that the deli was located in the United States. “The question before the United States government — right now — is whether the story of our own Church institutions that serve the public, and that are threatened by the HHS mandate, will end happily too. Will our nation continue to be one committed to religious liberty and diversity?”

‘It Makes Us Hypocrites’

CUA’s Garvey outlined the university’s chief objections to the HHS mandate, and he concluded that Obama’s “accommodation” did not resolve those objections.

“The final rule forces the university to violate its deepest convictions in two ways. First, it requires the university to pay for drugs and procedures that we view as morally wrong, often gravely so,” said Garvey in the statement he provided to the House committee.

“Second, the rule forces us to deny in one part of our operation what we affirm in another. We teach our students in our classes, in our sacraments, and in the activities of student life and campus ministry that sterilization, contraception and abortion are wrong. The rule requires our human resources staff to offer these very services to our students at no additional cost, as part of our health-insurance program. It makes hypocrites of us all, in the most important lessons we teach.”

Garvey stated that the accommodation did not resolve these concerns. While Obama contended that insurance companies would cover the costs of providing contraceptive services and sterilization, Garvey said the university was still responsible for securing those services through its financial contributions.

The CUA president stressed his belief that a “political agenda” was behind the unnecessary state promotion of contraception services.

“HHS might wish to increase the rate of abortions, sterilizations and contraceptive use by students and employees at The Catholic University of America. It has shown a desire to conscript the university and its insurer in the service of that agenda. But it is our religious belief that these activities are wrong. A decent respect for the principle of religious liberty should leave us free to act on our belief,” Garvey stated bluntly.

Belmont Abbey’s Thierfelder suggested there was a larger, troubling pattern at work and that the HHS mandate was only the latest and most extensive challenge posed to the free exercise of religious institutions.

“We at Belmont Abbey College know this story firsthand. Three years ago, in the early months of this administration, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) made Belmont Abbey College the first religious organization ever targeted by the federal government for not covering contraception in our employee health-care plan.”

“The EEOC said that by remaining true to our Catholic beliefs we were guilty of ‘gender discrimination.’ They then sat on their hands and refused to issue a final determination on our case. They have left us in limbo, with an EEOC investigation hanging over our heads, for more than two and a half years,” he charged.

“Why has the EEOC refused to move forward in our case, we’ve wondered? No doubt it’s because they knew their aggressive interpretation of Title VII would not hold up in court. In fact, the only federal appeals court to hear this issue held that the EEOC was wrong — Title VII does not require employers to cover contraceptives.”

Political Overtones

During the hearing, questions and comments from committee members hinted at the sound bites likely to be featured in future campaign ads.

The Republicans’ questions mostly sought to flesh out religious-liberty concerns, but GOP committee members also asked the witnesses to issue broader judgments of Obama’s health-reform bill.  The religious leaders stayed on message, however, and did not offer their opinion about whether the new health bill should be repealed.

Democrats, for their part, argued that Obama’s Feb. 10 “accommodation” had effectively addressed First Amendment issues, and they professed confusion about the witnesses’ ongoing concerns. Other Democrats contended that the hearing was part of a darker effort to block access to birth control in general, and they expressed their dismay that the first of two witness panels did not include any women.

Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., said the witnesses were being “used for a political agenda” to undermine the president. “Today’s hearing is a sham, a shameful exercise,” he said.

But the Missouri Synod’s Rev. Harrison rejected the suggestion that he and other religious leaders were tools of any partisan campaign.

“I pray for the president every day,” said Harrison. But he said he had come to give voice to his “deep distress” over the new policy.

During the hearing, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the committee’s ranking Democrat,  asked Bishop Lori to explain why some Catholic organizations, such as the Catholic Health Association,  had endorsed President Obama’s accommodation.

The congressman’s question underscored the value of the quick endorsement of the president’s “modification” on the part of Daughter of Charity Sister Carol Keehan, CEO of the Catholic Health Association. But Bishop Lori pushed back, stating that the bishops, not the other organizations, spoke for the Catholic Church.

‘I’d Go to Jail’

CUA’s Garvey also was pressed by Rep. Cummings to justify his opposition to the mandate when 20 Catholic universities already provided contraceptives in their health plans.

The Cardinal Newman Society subsequently obtained that list, compiled by the National Women’s Law Center an abortion-rights group.

“It seems that many of the colleges on that list provide contraceptive coverage in states that mandate they do so. So, in short, the politicians in those states forced colleges to provide contraceptive coverage, and then the politicians on the federal level use the fact that they’re providing it as evidence that it’s okay for others to do the same,” stated the Cardinal Newman Society in a Feb. 17 blog post.

“It’s worth noting as well that many of the colleges on the list provide contraceptive coverage but not for reasons of birth control and only when medically necessary, like the Franciscan University of Steubenville, the University of Dallas and the University of Notre Dame, among others.”

Throughout the hearing, Cummings kept up the pressure on church leaders. In one instance, he noted that Catholic institutions receive millions in federal funds, and implied the U.S. bishops had nothing to complain about.

Bishop Lori replied: “We don’t get a handout. We have a contract for services, and we deliver them. … We bring the generosity of the Catholic people, and we bring volunteers. When you contract with the Church, you get a bang for your buck.”

The bishop and the other witnesses were repeatedly asked by Democratic committee members to explain whether they sought to outlaw contraception entirely. Every witness denied that suggestion and stated that the issue was whether they would be forced by the state to pay for services that violated their religious beliefs.

Indeed, the leaders of the Protestant churches noted that they did not morally object to the use of contraception, but they could not accept the requirement that they provide abortion-inducing drugs like “ella” and Plan B. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s Harrison said that he would “go to jail” before he would accommodate a violation of the free exercise of Lutheran institutions.

Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., backed them up: “This is not about women. This is not about contraceptives. This is about religious freedom.”

But the administration’s allies barely registered these statements. Rather, they continued to push the discussion from presidential overreach to a debate about women’s health services, and a hidden agenda that involved the goal of banning contraception.

A similar dynamic surfaced this week in media coverage of GOP presidential contenders, with journalists asking candidates to comment on their views about contraception.

During a television interview this week with Piers Morgan, Rick Santorum was asked whether he would seek to outlaw contraception. Santorum replied that he had no intention of banning contraception.

Today, as the issue continued to roil Capitol Hill, with Democrats accusing the House committee chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), of censoring women’s voices, Michael Novak, the Catholic author and public intellectual, criticized the partisan effort to spin a religious-freedom issue as an attack on women’s access to contraception.

“No state or other jurisdiction is trying to ban contraception. Neither the Catholic Church nor any other religious body is trying to ban contraception. The means of contraception are even more widely available than in drugstores; one can pick up condoms in restrooms, even in restaurants,” Novak wrote in a column for National Review.

Novak stated, “The reason for this deception is to make opponents appear to be doing something they are not. They are not banning contraception. It is dishonest to focus on contraception instead of on the real issue, the attempt to extend presidential power into areas constitutionally forbidden to it.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.