What Obama Should Say at Thursday's Prayer Breakfast
A proposal from our friend, and former U.S. ambassador to Malta, Douglas W. Kmiec:
Last November, I strongly recommended to the White House that President Obama grant the bishops’ request for a broader exemption for Catholic employers from the general obligation placed on most employers to acquire contraceptive coverage for their employees. To emphasize how well the bishops’ request dovetailed with what I understood then, and understand now, to be the president’s own perspective on religious freedom, I drafted some remarks to illustrate that happy convergence.
The president chose to not grant the exemption, and now the bishops are calling that decision an act of war on the church and religious freedom. With due respect, I believe the leaders of our faith have overstated matters, but were I the president’s political advisor, I would advise him to confess error.
Here is my proposed presidential speech from November now redrafted to do just that. Should the president wish to end the controversy with the bishops, he might think about employing all or part of the revised remarks in his prayer breakfast remarks later this week:
Faith and freedom are inseparable. In 2008, I had great concern about unnecessary divisions in this country, especially those that in any way suggested that a person’s understanding of faith could disqualify that person from public service or benefit. That isn’t in keeping with my beliefs, and it is not in keeping with the traditions of religious freedom observed in our country.
Recently we made a mistake. While the constitution doesn't mandate religious exemptions from general laws, I believe we should accommodate as many beliefs as possible and to the greatest extent possible without jeopardizing the purpose of the law.
With my knowledge, Secretary Sibelius accepted on a temporary and now proposed permanent basis an exemption drawn too narrowly. That caused great concern to some members of the Catholic faith. The Catholic Church in America provides millions in our nation with education at all levels in addition to hospital care and great works of charity. These works benefit everyone, and in the initial draft of our exemption that was not adequately reflected. My recent visit with New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan has reminded me that it is the American tradition to be more accommodating of our neighbor’s religious understanding than maybe the law demands.
Archbishop Dolan reassured me that his concern was anchored in faith and that the Catholic community was not joining with some partisans who are still ideologically at war with the administration over the historic expansion of health care. These partisan types are anxious to pick a fight; the bishops just want to do the most good. I respect that, even as I don’t share their objection in conscience to employer funding of certain reproductive insurance coverage. There is great wisdom in Jefferson's reminder that “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.”
In this instance that good judgment would be to not select an exemption that is phrased in a fashion that is unduly limited, matching virtually none of the hiring or service practices of Catholic hospitals, universities and other social service organizations upon which millions rely. Yes, utilizing an exemption that does not map reality might coerce a number of Catholic institutions to comply and result in some greater, insured reproductive services, but a good number more would then withdraw their services as a matter of conscience.
People of good faith, many faiths, and no faith disagree on the issue and the Catholic community is not asking for the Catholic view to be enacted into law; they are asking that there be room under law for the Catholic view. Jefferson knew making that allowance was a matter of freedom and it did not jeopardize the common good, since “truth is great and will prevail if left to her; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error....”
I believe that too. As I have pledged before that my service as your president will always be guided by the prayer that “we can live with one another in a way that reconciles the beliefs of each with the good of all.”
The proposed exemption was too narrow to honor the spirit of my prayer, which I know all Americans join me in. The exemption in the existing law remains the most accommodating of individual conscience so I have directed the Secretary to withdraw her less than satisfactory proposed revision of that exemption.