During this morning's annual prayer breakfast, President Obama only obliquely referenced the week's unpleasantness between his administration and U.S. Catholic bishops. The relationship, already shaky, became even more strained by recent Health and Human Services edicts that will require Catholic hospitals, universities and social services to pay for health plans that include contraception, sterilization and the "morning after" drugs Plan B and ella. He said:
Now, we can earnestly seek to see these [religious] values lived out in our politics and our policies, and we can earnestly disagree on the best way to achieve these values. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “Christianity has not, and does not profess to have a detailed political program. It is meant for all men at all times, and the particular program which suited one place or time would not suit another.
Our goal should not be to declare our policies as biblical. It is God who is infallible, not us . . . So instead, it is our hope that people of goodwill can pursue their values and common ground and the common good as best they know how, with respect for each other. And I have to say that sometimes we talk about respect, but we don’t act with respect towards each other during the course of these debates.
But each and every day, for many in this room, the biblical injunctions are not just words, they are also deeds. Every single day, in different ways, so many of you are living out your faith in service to others.
A more specific pushback against the bishops' campaign to depict the HHS decision and other recent controversial moves by the administration as part of an orchestrated campaign to diminish religious liberty was delivered by Cecilia Muñoz. On the White House blog Muñoz acknowledged some "confusion" over the new regs, but wanted folks out in progressive Catholic swing vote land to "have the facts":
Churches are exempt from the new rules: Churches and other houses of worship will be exempt from the requirement to offer insurance that covers contraception.
No individual health care provider will be forced to prescribe contraception: The President and this Administration have previously and continue to express strong support for existing conscience protections. For example, no Catholic doctor is forced to write a prescription for contraception.
No individual will be forced to buy or use contraception: This rule only applies to what insurance companies cover. Under this policy, women who want contraception will have access to it through their insurance without paying a co-pay or deductible. But no one will be forced to buy or use contraception.
Drugs that cause abortion are not covered by this policy: Drugs like RU486 are not covered by this policy, and nothing about this policy changes the President’s firm commitment to maintaining strict limitations on Federal funding for abortions. No Federal tax dollars are used for elective abortions.
Over half of Americans already live in the 28 States that require insurance companies cover contraception: Several of these States like North Carolina, New York, and California have identical religious employer exemptions. Some States like Colorado, Georgia and Wisconsin have no exemption at all.
Contraception is used by most women: According to a study by the Guttmacher Institute, most women, including 98 percent of Catholic women, have used contraception.
Contraception coverage reduces costs: While the monthly cost of contraception for women ranges from $30 to $50, insurers and experts agree that savings more than offset the cost. The National Business Group on Health estimated that it would cost employers 15 to 17 percent more not to provide contraceptive coverage than to provide such coverage, after accounting for both the direct medical costs of potentially unintended and unhealthy pregnancy and indirect costs such as employee absence and reduced productivity.
Muñoz wrote that the administration is "committed to both respecting religious beliefs and increasing access to important preventive services."
"And as we move forward, our strong partnerships with religious organizations will continue," she added. "The Administration has provided substantial resources to Catholic organizations over the past three years, in addition to numerous non-financial partnerships to promote healthy communities and serve the common good. This work includes partnerships with Catholic social service agencies on local responsible fatherhood programs and international anti-hunger/food assistance programs. We look forward to continuing this important work."
Her remarks seem to walk around, as does much of the debate in cyberspace (do kids still call it that?), the potential constitutional problems with the new policy. Perhaps more comment from the White House on this matter will be forthcoming.