President Obama vs. Catholic Conscience

Did the president mislead Catholics in his 2009 Notre Dame speech? Columnists analyze administrations efforts against conscience-protection laws and religious freedom. But pro-life Democrats predict that the federal government will create a broader religious exemption to federal mandates requiring contraception coverage in all new health-care plans.

(photo: Wikipedia)

Obama administration critics say the president misled his religious supporters in a 2009 Notre Dame speech, in which he supported conscience protections and “common ground” on issues like abortion.

“Two and a half years after President Obama was given an honorary degree at America’s flagship Catholic university and delivered its commencement address, at least we have clarity,” wrote Kansas Catholic Conference’s director, Michael Schuttloffel, in a Nov. 13 column.

“Willful blindness regarding this administration’s true intentions is no longer possible,” wrote Schuttloffel, who highlighted conflict between the moderate tone of Obama’s University of Notre Dame commencement speech and his administration’s policies.

Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson voiced similar concerns in a Nov. 14 column. He accused the president, who courted the Catholic vote in the 2008 election, of “(turning) his back on Catholics.”

“The conscience protections of Catholics are under assault, particularly by the Department of Health and Human Services,” wrote Gerson. “And Obama’s Catholic strategy is in shambles.”

Both writers urged their readers to compare President Obama’s words at Notre Dame with his later actions.

In his May 2009 speech, President Obama expressed a desire to “work through these conflicts” over issues like abortion and stem cells, in order to “join hands in common effort.”

“Maybe we won’t agree on abortion,” the president proposed. “Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion and draft a sensible conscience clause and make sure that all of our health-care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women.”

Schuttloffel compared the president’s invitation to Notre Dame, and his moderate tone there, to the legendary “Trojan Horse” of Greek mythology: a giant, hollow statue presented as a peace offering from the opposing army, with legions of soldiers waiting within.

“The folly of those Catholics who issued and defended that invitation, like the Trojans who wheeled the great wooden horse inside their city walls, has been laid bare,” the Kansas Catholic Conference director stated.

He indicated that the administration’s contraceptive mandate, which includes at least one abortion-causing drug, made a mockery of the president’s talk about “trying to find common ground” with pro-life advocates.

“With the eager assistance of old friends at Planned Parenthood, Health and Human Services Secretary (Kathleen) Sebelius recently unveiled a list of ‘preventive services’ that all private and public health plans will eventually be required to provide,” Schuttloffel noted.

“It includes contraceptives, sterilization, and even the abortifacient ‘Ella,’ which has the capacity to end a pregnancy after fertilization.”

“Because the new policy prohibits copays or deductibles for these ‘services,’ they will for provided for ‘free,’” Schuttloffel pointed out. “Which means they will be paid for with the premiums and taxes of people who do not use these services and who object to them.”

In his Washington Post column, Gerson compared the president’s past praise of conscience rights with his administration’s choice to cut funding from the U.S. Catholic bishops’ work against human trafficking.

On Jan. 12, 2009, eight days before President Obama’s inauguration, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Department of Health and Human Services over its work with the U.S. bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services.

The ACLU accused the government agency of setting up “an establishment of religion” by funding the Catholic humanitarian program, which did not refer women for abortion or contraception.

In October 2011, the Obama administration cut funding for the highly rated program after declaring it would give preference to programs offering “the full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care.”

“This was described by one official as ‘standard procedure,’” wrote Gerson.

“So it is now standard procedure in the Obama administration to deny funding to some Catholic programs based solely on their pro-life beliefs.”

At Notre Dame, Obama promoted a “presumption of good faith” between those on opposite sides of the abortion debate. “When we open our hearts and our minds to those who may not think like we do or believe what we do,” he said, “that’s when we discover at least the possibility of common ground. “

At an October 2011 Chicago fundraiser, however,  Secretary Sebelius said she was “in a war” against political opponents who “want to roll back the last 50 years in progress women have made in comprehensive health care in America.”

“This is no longer the ‘presumption of good faith,’” noted Gerson, who said the Obama appointee had shown “all the hallmarks of a vendetta” against the pro-life movement.

Schuttloffel said the contraceptive mandate’s “so-called religious exemption” signals the Obama administration’s true policy toward religious groups.

He called the narrow exemption the “most insidious aspect” of the Health and Human Services Department rules, since it “only applies to religious employers that have the inculcation of religious values as their purpose and that employ and serve people who share their religious beliefs.”

“It will therefore not apply to Catholic universities, hospitals and charitable organizations that serve the general public,” Schuttloffel noted.

“This is of a piece with the Obama administration’s various efforts to define religious freedom down to mean nothing more than the freedom to worship in private. The broad, two-centuries-old understanding of the First Amendment’s guarantee of ‘free exercise’ is being eviscerated.”

“Under the new policy, religious institutions are only rewarded with a religious exemption if they restrict their activities to worship,” the Kansas Catholic Conference director observed.

“But if they function as full participants in society, bringing their faith to bear on public life through education, health care and advocacy, they will then be forced to provide medical services they find deeply immoral.”

At Notre Dame’s 2009 commencement, President Obama praised the university’s students for “service … performed at schools and hospitals, international relief agencies and local charities.” He described such works as “incredibly impressive and a powerful testament to this institution.”

But now, Schuttloffel indicated, the president’s own policies endanger religious work in these areas: “A new, circumscribed understanding of religious liberty is being implemented, by fiat, by those who reject religion’s legitimate contribution to the public square.”

Though Catholics fear their institutions’ religious freedom is at risk, pro-life Democrats are predicting that the federal government will create a broader religious exemption to federal mandates requiring contraception coverage in all new health-care plans.

“I would have never voted for the final version of the bill if I expected the Obama administration to force Catholic hospitals and Catholic colleges and universities to pay for contraception,” former Pennsylvania Congresswoman Kathy Dahlkemper said Nov. 21.

“We worked hard to prevent abortion funding in health care and to include clear conscience protections for those with moral objections to abortion and contraceptive devices that cause abortion. I trust that the president will honor the commitment he made to those of us who supported final passage.”

Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life, also expressed confidence that the Obama administration will provide a sufficient exemption.

“The administration has no intention of forcing Catholic institutions to provide insurance coverage for services that are directly in opposition to their moral beliefs. It does not make any sense from a public-policy perspective, and it certainly is not smart politically to alienate Catholic voters,” she said.

Day charged that the Obama administration is “unfairly under attack by Catholic conservatives who are using the proposed final rule to spread anti-Obama sentiment to lay Catholics.”

On Aug. 1 the Department of Health and Human Services announced regulations for preventive care as required by the 2010 health-care legislation. The rules mandate that new health-care plans cover all FDA-approved sterilizations and contraception, including contraceptives with abortion-causing effects.

The regulations accompanied a proposed exemption only for religious employers whose primary purpose is the inculcation of religious values and who primarily employ and serve those who share their religious tenets. Catholic bishops and scholars have said the exemption would not include most Catholic health-care systems, charitable agencies and institutions of higher education.

Democrats for Life said that the health-care legislation itself proposed to continue to allow employers an exemption to mandatory contraception coverage if the employer objected on moral or religious grounds.

“This was part of the agreement reached by pro-life Democrats,” the organization said Nov. 19. “The issue for pro-life Democrats is that certain types of birth control cause abortions of new embryos.”

Other commentators have said that Health and Human Services’ narrow proposed exemption uses language originally intended to target Catholics.

The exemption originated in a California debate about a state-level contraception mandate, William Cox, president and CEO of the California-based Alliance of Catholic Health Care, told a Nov. 2 hearing of the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health.

Cox said the American Civil Liberties Union “painstakingly crafted” the definition to “specifically exclude religious institutional missions like health-care providers, universities and social-service agencies.”

During the debate, the then-head of Planned Parenthood in California said the wording was designed to close the “Catholic gap” in contraceptive coverage, Cox reported.

Pro-abortion rights groups like Emily’s List and NARAL are seeking to preserve the present language of the exemption.

Democrats for Life charged that these groups are “attempting to push the mandate beyond its hard-won legislative intent” and are using “scare tactics” to convince supporters they risk losing birth-control coverage.

Organization board member Stephen Schneck of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholics Studies at Catholic University of America invoked a previous controversy over the effects of the health-care legislation.

He said the Emily’s List campaign is “as dishonest as the Republican campaign” to convince voters that the health-care legislation funds abortion.

“The PPACA does not fund abortion, and not one woman will lose access to birth control under the new law. In fact, millions of women will now receive free birth control under that law,” he said.

Democrats for Life said that the campaign to preserve the narrow exemption could mean that “millions of Americans” will lose access to employer-sponsored health care. The organization cited the remarks of University of Notre Dame president Father John Jenkins, who said the rules would force the university either to violate Catholic moral teaching by paying for contraception and sterilization or to violate Catholic social teaching by discontinuing employee and student health-care plans. 

“Common sense would say health insurance, even if it does not include contraception coverage, is better than no insurance at all,” Dahlkemper said. “If commonsense prevails, the final rule will allow fair conscience protections that will not force religious institutions (to) choose between social teaching and moral teaching.”

In his testimony before the House subcommittee, Cox recommended that Health and Human Services use the broader definition of religious employer provided in the Internal Revenue Code. It should also amend the rule to ensure that individuals and non-religious employers are similarly protected, he said.

The proposed rules are set to take effect in August 2012.