The U.S. bishops this week continued a scorching rhetorical response to the recent H.H.S. decision to maintain a narrow religious exemption for contraception requirements in new health insurance plans, but some reporters have noted a small problem with all the outrage. Primarily its absence in previous years as Catholic employers grappled with state requirements regarding contraception and health insurance. At least 28 states require that contraception be included in health plans; of these 19 states offer some form of a religious exemption and/or secular pass on contraception. What many people are wondering now is exactly what have Catholic institutional employers been doing in states without exemptions. Are some perhaps not even aware of what is in the fine print of their health plans? (I would not be in the least surprised.) Have some come up with strategies that could prove workable at the national level or have they simply acquiesced to state regs as the lesser of two evils?
This issue appears to have flown under the radar for a long time, leading some to suspect that the outrage worked up by the bishops this week derives more from a general antipathy to Obama than fury at H.H.S. It could be that many bishops simply weren’t aware of the laws regarding contraception and health insurance in their states until the federal involvement brought the issue to their attention.
I think it is fair to say that the administration is doing a terrible job of explaining this decision to those Catholics who are striving mightily to remain supporters of the president. Still, it’s hard to believe the H.H.S. call reflects a conscious strategy aimed at reducing religious expression and boxing out the Catholic church as some allege, but the administration is not helping clarify its position with its rope-a-dope strategy, waiting for the bell to sound and hoping I guess that the issue will blow over.
I think they are seriously underestimating the damage this issue could do by November. They may have decided that left-leaning Catholics have little choice but to vote Obama (the same is true of course of the pro-choice community) or that the Catholic swing vote is not as numerically important to them in this election cycle as it was in 2008.
This would have been an easy call to make on principle alone, given the fact that progressives have no where else to turn in November, especially so soon after the Supreme Court’s Hosanna-Tabor decision gave clear primacy to the free exercise of religion. Perhaps it was made on principle, just not one that the bishops would find agreeable: that with contraception so widely used in American society and with many seeing it as the lesser evil to abortion (even presuming that Plan B and Ella do not work as advertised but as abortifacients) that this new policy on women's "preventive" care could not be hamstrung by political window dressing in service to Catholic sensibilities.
But if that’s the case, then the administration does not clearly understand the Constitutional implications of its new policy, basing it on what is socially expedient (from its perspective), not on what is constitutionally defensible and I think they will lose if this matter is brought to the Supreme Court. Having taken lefty Catholics along for this truly disagreeable ride (please note the noxious revival of classic American anti-Catholic bigotry this conflict is stirring up on various websites), I think Obama will lose again when the voting booths open. He may win in November anyway, owing to the weakness of the GOP field, but his re-election is not the only thing at issue any longer. This poor call also jeopardizes public support for the Affordable Care Act, which will take years to fully roll out and which may end up the collateral damage in this fight no matter which side “wins.”