Winning the Mandate Debate

March 25 issue editorial on Health and Human Services issue.

The fight for religious freedom has faced new and unpredictable hurdles in the two months since Kathleen Sebelius approved a rule that requires Catholic institutions to provide services that violate their religious teachings.

Since the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services unveiled the final version of the contraception mandate, advocates for co-pay-free sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs have launched a campaign of misinformation, characterizing Church leaders’ defense of the “first freedom” as a “war against women.”

There’s good news, however. A CBS/New York Times poll released March 13 confirmed that a slight majority of Americans share the bishops’ opposition to the mandate, and the numbers suggest that the administration’s campaign to win support for the federal rule may have backfired.

Conducted March 7-11, the survey of 1,000 Americans yielded some surprising results that suggest the bishops’ consistent opposition to the mandate is having an impact.

Among a range of questions on election-year issues, the poll asked: “Do you think health-insurance plans for all employers should have to cover the full cost of birth control for their female employees, or should employers be allowed to opt out of covering that based on religious or moral objections?”

A majority of respondents said that employers should have the right to opt out. More significantly, 57% of respondents (including 48% of women) agreed that “religiously affiliated employers” should be able to opt out.

The question did not mention that abortion-inducing drugs were included in mandated services.

Opinion polls, pro or con, are not the whole story, of course. Prayer, catechesis, outreach to all Americans of good will, and reasoned debate on op-ed pages and in church halls will all play an essential role. The unity of purpose is reflected in our story on Catholics and Evangelicals Together on page one in this issue.

But the polls provide evidence that the bishops’ message is getting through, and we have the leaders at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to thank.

It’s also time to get out fresh information about the administration’s “fine on faith” — paid by employers who resist the government’s demand that they violate their objections to contraception services on moral or religious grounds. This “fine,” say opponents of the mandate, means “religious freedom is no longer free.”

A recent report issued by the Congressional Research Service states, “A group health plan that fails to comply with the pertinent requirements in the IRC [Internal Revenue Code] may be subject to a tax of $100 for each day in the noncompliance period with respect to each individual to whom such failure relates.”

Church-affiliated organizations, hospitals or universities that refuse to comply with the mandate could face annual fines of $2,000 per employee. Institutions with thousands of employees could be fined millions of dollars annually.

Yet faithful, informed Catholics understand that a strong and courageous defense of the freedom of conscience exercised by church-affiliated institutions yields benefits for all Americans. Shoring up the religious identity and mission of Catholic universities, hospitals and social agencies also bolsters every civil institution that plays an essential role of mediator between the individual and the state. When the state overreaches, the impact is rarely limited to a single element of society. Everyone suffers. Americans are just beginning to wake up to the fact that health of the “first freedom” serves as a bellwether for the health of our democracy.