Religious Freedom Surfaces Briefly in Debates, Stirring Frustration

The frustration arising from the debate centers on President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden’s inaccurate statements about the mandate. But some opponents of the controversial federal law are also chagrined that Mitt Romney in particular did not use the debates to set the record straight.

Throughout much of the 2012 presidential campaign season, Catholic leaders and their allies have struggled to explain to the public how the federal contraception mandate threatens the free exercise of religion enshrined in the Constitution.

The two presidential debates on domestic issues and one vice-presidential debate looked like an ideal opportunity to break through partisan efforts to frame opposition to the mandate as a "war on women." After all, both the GOP presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, and his running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, have continuously spoken out against the mandate and its narrow religious exemption that forces Catholic institutions to provide co-pay-free contraception, abortion drugs and sterilization in their employee health plans.

"An effort has been made to see that a question about the [Health and Human Services] HHS mandate is asked during the presidential debate," said Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore during an interview with the Register in September. "It would be good to cut through the public-relations fog created since the start of the year."

The chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, Archbishop Lori has labored to get beyond the political spin that has left many voters confused. At a Feb. 29 House Committee hearing on the issue, he observed, "Ever since the mandate has been announced, fair is foul, and foul is fair."

But after the second presidential debate on domestic issues, Catholics and activists concerned about the federal law are far from satisfied with the substance of the discussion. The final presidential debate addressed foreign and economic policy.

Lori Windham, senior counsel at the Becket Fund, the public interest group that is representing many of the plaintiffs in the 30 lawsuits challenging the HHS mandate, registered her disappointment following the second presidential debate.

"What I would have liked to have seen from both sides is an acknowledgement that the mandate is a serious religious-freedom issue. It is not a problem that has been fixed, as the administration has tried to paint it. It is not something we can just ignore," said Windham.

The frustration arising from the debate centers on President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden’s inaccurate statements about the mandate. But some opponents of the controversial federal law are also chagrined that Mitt Romney in particular did not use the debates to set the record straight.

On the First Things website, Anna Williams echoed the disappointment of many critics of the mandate in her critique of Romney’s performance during the Oct. 16 presidential debate.

"The Romney of last night’s debate … would rather assure women of their continuing access to contraception than assure religious groups that they will not be forced to betray their consciences. He does not want to rock the boat.

"And this apparent desire to avoid confrontation, to say and do whatever pleases potential supporters, has been evident throughout the man’s political career."

Religious-liberty issues did not surface in the Oct. 3 presidential debate at the University of Denver, though Romney mentioned in passing that he supported "religious tolerance and freedom."

But during the Oct. 11 vice-presidential debate at Centre College in Danville, Ky., the moderator asked both candidates, who are Catholic, to explain their "personal" views about abortion.

Ryan used that question as an opportunity to attack the HHS mandate.

"What troubles me more is how this administration has handled all of these issues. Look at what they’re doing through Obamacare, with respect to assaulting the religious liberties of this country," said Ryan. "They’re infringing on our ‘first freedom,’ the freedom of religion, by infringing on Catholic charities, Catholic churches, Catholic hospitals. Our churches should not have to sue the federal government to maintain their religious liberties."

Biden got his turn to respond to the question about abortion — saying he was personally opposed but could not force his view on all Americans — and he soon moved on to the mandate issue.

"With regard to the assault on the Catholic Church, let me make it absolutely clear: No religious institution — Catholic or otherwise, including Catholic Social Services, Georgetown Hospital, Mercy Hospital or any other hospital — none has to either refer for contraception; none has to pay for contraception; none has to be a vehicle to get contraception in any insurance policy they provide. That is a fact," the vice president asserted.

Ryan soon got his chance to challenge Biden’s suggestion that the mandate controversy had been resolved.

"Now, I’ve got to take issue with the Catholic Church and religious liberty [in terms of the mandate]. If they agree with you, why would they keep suing you? It’s a distinction without a difference," Ryan argued, and he seemed poised for a more robust discussion of the issue when the moderator cut him off, bringing the debate back to abortion.

The following day, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops swiftly challenged Biden’s assertion that the dispute between Church leaders and the Obama administration had been resolved.

"This is not a fact. The HHS mandate contains a narrow, four-part exemption for certain ‘religious employers.’ That exemption was made final in February and does not extend to ‘Catholic Social Services, Georgetown Hospital, Mercy Hospital, any hospital’ or any other religious charity that offers its services to all, regardless of the faith of those served," read an unsigned statement issued by the USCCB.

The statement made clear that the president’s proposed "accommodation" did "not even potentially relieve these organizations from the obligation ‘to pay for contraception’ and ‘to be a vehicle to get contraception.’"

With no acceptable accommodation available, the statement read, "USCCB continues to urge HHS, in the strongest possible terms, actually to eliminate the various infringements on religious freedom imposed by the mandate."

Did Ryan’s comments and the USCCB’s statement of clarification effectively challenge the administration’s ongoing campaign to present the "accommodation" as a solution to the problem?

It is hard to tell, when just a few media reports fact-checked the reasons why religious plaintiffs were still suing the administration over the mandate. Further, only Catholic media and a handful of news blogs picked up the USCCB’s statement on the debate.

In the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., it was the president who went on the offensive, returning to his party’s now-familiar pattern of framing the issue as an attack on women’s access to contraception.

"You know a major difference in this campaign is that Governor Romney feels comfortable having politicians in Washington decide the health-care choices that women are making," Obama stated.

"I think that’s a mistake. In my health-care bill, I said insurance companies need to provide contraceptive coverage to everybody who is insured. Because this is not just a health issue; it’s an economic issue for women. It makes a difference. This is money out of that family’s pocket.

"Governor Romney not only opposed it — he suggested that, in fact, employers should be able to make the decision as to whether or not a woman gets contraception through her insurance coverage."

Romney immediately rejected the suggestion that he sought to block access to contraception.

"I don’t believe that bureaucrats in Washington should tell someone whether they can use contraceptives or not, and I don’t believe employers should tell someone whether they can have contraceptive care or not," Romney said. "Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives, and the president’s statement of my policy is completely and totally wrong."

But the GOP presidential candidate did not stick with the topic and accuse his opponent of trampling on the First Amendment rights of millions of Catholics and other Americans who objected to the federal mandate.

The following day, the Romney campaign sought to flesh out his position.

The Wall Street Journal quoted senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom: "What he does support is the right of religious institutions to live by the tenets of their faith. … He supports a conscience exemption for Catholics and other faithful people."

But Romney’s decision to pivot away from an opportunity to go on the attack sparked some questions in the conservative blogosphere.

"I wonder if Romney’s defensive response about the HHS mandate reflects a political judgment that this is a losing issue for Republicans — and if that’s right, I wonder if that judgment is correct," asked National Review’s Romesh Ponnuru, a suggestion given additional credence as the Romney campaign released a new ad that presents him as a moderate on social issues.

In The Washington Post, Jacques Berlinerblau, an associate professor and director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University and author of How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom, viewed Obama’s decision to raise the mandate issue as an attempt to reframe, and possibly defuse, the HHS mandate as a "pocketbook issue."

"Although he had been asked a question about gender-based income inequality, he intentionally steered the conversation to a subject he would have been reluctant to discuss just a few months back: contraception," noted Berlinerblau in an Oct. 17 op-ed that also expressed puzzlement about Romney’s retreat from the religious-liberty issue.

"Strangely, Romney, in his follow-up, didn’t mention that either. In so doing, the governor may have blundered by not pressing his advantage on a topic that always whips up his base into a frenzy."

However, Becket Fund’s Windham suggested that both presidential candidates showed little inclination to offer a more complete argument on this subject, in part, because the interlocking issues aren’t easy to explain and can easily confuse and offend.

"We still have a challenge explaining why accounts of a supposed compromise are inaccurate," said Windham, who gave high marks to Ryan and the USCCB for a "good job" explaining the basic issues.

Lila Rose, the pro-life activist who heads Live Action, said that the mandate’s opponents are still perfecting their message and that Catholics critical of Romney’s debate performance should remember that the GOP candidate is committed to repealing the Affordable Care Act, which authorizes the mandate.

"Speaking for myself, what encourages me about Romney for president is that he is against Obamacare," Rose told the Register.

"But it’s true that most voters don’t understand this issue, and we need to continue the education process to explain why religious liberty is non-negotiable," she added. "We are in the middle of the great fight. I don’t think the ending is written yet. Those who know the truth must speak out. It is essential that anyone who is elected, especially the president, needs to fight for that."

Rusty Reno, the editor of First Things, agreed that it is no easy thing for Romney or Ryan to compress all the arguments and details related to the mandate controversy into a digestible "sound bite."

"If I stand up and say, ‘The administration has failed to respect religious freedom,’ and then Obama says, ‘Our administration has provided a carefully crafted response,’ and then I have to come back and say, ‘Yes, but it’s not adequate,’ that is not a sound bite."

Part of the challenge for the bishops and other opponents of the mandate, Reno added, is that religious freedom is not a "mature issue."

"It took a decade for the pro-life movement to find its footing and figure out how to get traction with the public and bring out people’s natural moral intuitions," he noted. "That effort included an educational campaign to help people understand what was happening, and the ‘ultrasound revolution’ helped reinforce moral truth. These threats to religious freedom are really new."

If the mandate stands, Reno predicts that threats to religious liberty will have to worsen before the majority of Americans, including the nation’s political leaders, take notice.

"Our politicians don’t lead; they follow," he observed.

That said, even though the mandate was only approved last January, he sees some promising signs of real traction on the issue. Just as the Catholic Church spearheaded the effort to overturn legal abortion in the United States after Roe v. Wade, so the bishops are again laying a foundation for a new moral movement with political consequences.

"When it comes to religious liberty, the Church is doing a good job," Reno said. "At the parish level, I have been quite surprised by all the homilies I have heard from pastors. The message has been clear and unequivocal. That is a really healthy sign."