Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Bishops Can't Be Satisfied on Religious Exceptions, NCR Columnist Says

Jamie Manson, a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter, reminded us in a posting yesterday why she recently earned the Catholic Press Association's first prize for Best Column/Regular Commentary. 

In an excellent analysis of the contraception-mandate controversy, she explains why the U.S. bishops can never be satisfied with President Obama's compromise--because a contraception exception for church-related institutions is only one slice of what they actually crave:  what the bishops really want is to overturn a half-century of Equal Employment Opportunity law and allow religious people who have employees to discriminate on the basis of religion against any employee who does not share their beliefs.

Such an approach is not freedom of religion but in fact a very fascist form of theocracy. But instead of a 'single-payer' theocracy, the employees get a theocracy of individual religious employers.

It's unfortunate that NCR's editors did not listen to Ms. Manson before they decided to jettison fifty years of editorial policy on contraception and freedom of conscience.  The text of her analysis follows.

When Archbishop Timothy Dolan's initial reaction to President Barack Obama's compromise on the contraception mandate was "It's a step in the right direction," I knew it was too good to be true.

I knew this because, the night before the compromise was announced, I had listened carefully to Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the USCCB, imply that the bishops were seeking conscience exemptions for far more entities than Catholic institutions. As he said on PBS's "Newshour," the exemptions should cover "both religious employers and employers with religious people running them or other people of conviction who are running them."

I also listened carefully to Luke Goodrich, general counsel for the highly conservative Becket Fund, who spoke to CNN immediately after Obama announced his compromise. Goodrich shared Picarello's concern, saying, "A lot of religious individuals who own small business are not covered by this supposed compromise and they are going to be forced to violate their religious beliefs, too."

Although the bishops did not mention their desire to cover the rights of secular employers and small business owners in their formal statement, an internal, bishops-only briefing memo obtained by Whispers in the Loggia's Rocco Palmo, confirms this as one of their goals:
"It seems clear there is no exemption for Catholic and other individuals who work for secular employers; for such individuals who own or operate a business; or for employers who have a moral (not religious) objection ... This presents a grave moral problem that must be addressed."

These statements demonstrate how disingenuous the bishops have been in their cries about Obama's attack on the Catholic church and in their claims of concern over the fate of Catholic hospitals, universities and charities.

Their goals go far beyond Catholic entities. What they really seek is to enable secular employers to impose their religious ideologies on the lives of their employees.

We have heard the bishops talk a lot about the First Amendment over the last week. The First Amendment text about religion reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

How does this amendment defend the right of secular employers to use their religious beliefs to burden the civil rights of their employees? To allow secular employees or small business owners this kind of conscience exemption from U.S. law would be a gross violation of the separation of church and state.

All U.S. citizens are forced to pay for practices that violate their consciences: wars, executions, a broken prison system, the mistreatment of immigrants, the salaries of elected officials who do not represent our ideas and convictions. We may not like it, but this is the price of living and working in a democracy.

But the bishops do not seem interested living in a democratic nation founded principally to protect its citizens' rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They seem more interested developing a bizarre form of theocracy in which personal religious ideology can trump civil law.

The Obama compromise showed that some members of his administration were wise to the fact that the bishops had a much broader agenda behind the contraception battle. Why members of liberal Catholic groups and the liberal Catholic media couldn't see this remains a mystery. It isn't hard to figure out their agenda if one reads Archbishop Dolan's announcement of the creation of the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, dated Sept. 29, 2011.

In this letter, Dolan lays out examples of "grave" challenges to religious freedom. He appointed the ad hoc committee to look at these six issues in particular:
  • The HHS-mandated coverage of contraception and sterilizations
  • The HHS requirement that the USCCB's office of Migration and Refugee Services offer reproductive services to victims of sex trafficking
  • USAID's increasing requirement to provide HIV prevention services (including condoms) in certain international relief and development programs
  • The Department of Justice's refusal to defend the Defense of Marriage Act and its criticism of DOMA as an act of bigotry
  • The Department of Justice's argument against expanding the "ministerial exception," which allows religious groups to be exempt from employment laws, including claims to sexual harassment and unlawful termination
  • The narrow religious exemption in New York state's same-sex marriage bill, which, in particular, doesn't protect the rights of county clerks to refuse to sign marriage licenses for same-sex couples for moral reasons
Here is the full agenda of the bishops' fight for religious freedom. Looking over this list, it becomes clear that if Obama had given the bishops an inch, eventually they would have taken six miles.

Dolan's announcement also clarifies why so many evangelical groups, who otherwise support the use of contraception within marriage, came to the bishops' defense. They knew full well that if the bishops got this exemption, it would create a small opening that other religious groups could continue to widen in their own fight against recognizing same-sex marriages.

The evangelicals may not share the bishops' moral objections to contraception, but they have formed a united front with the Catholic hierarchy in the war on same-sex civil unions and marriage. They declared the war in a joint statement titled "Marriage and Religious Freedom: Fundamental Goods that Stand or Fall Together."

The letter was released Jan. 12, just weeks before the contraception controversy dominated the headlines. In it, Catholic bishops and leaders of right-wing Christian organizations warned that if employers are forced to recognize civil unions and marriages between people of the same sex, they will also be forced to obey the same laws that apply to heterosexual couples.

And like the contraception coverage, these religious leaders want secular employers protected, too. The letter states, "The most urgent peril is this: forcing or pressuring both individuals and religious organizations -- throughout their operations, well beyond religious ceremonies -- to treat same-sex sexual conduct as the moral equivalent of marital sexual conduct."

The religious leaders lament that both religious institutions and individuals who object to same-sex marriage will be forced to comply with laws governing "employment discrimination, employment benefits, adoption, education, healthcare, elder care, housing, property, and taxation."

The bishops' defense of secular individuals is not without precedent. When the same-sex marriage bill passed in Connecticut in 2009, Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, who now serves as chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, attempted to extend religious liberty protections to florists who might object to same-sex marriage on religious or moral grounds.

Mr. Obama's compromise is shrewd in that it shines a light on the true motivations behind the bishops' crusade. The bishops' complaint was that Catholic universities, hospitals and charities would have to pay for services that are not consistent with Catholic doctrine. Mr. Obama arranged it so they would not have to pay for those services. The hierarchy, therefore, should be as pleased as Sr. Carol Keehan and Fr. Larry Synder.

The fact that the bishops aren't satisfied suggests they and their right-wing religious and political brethren had a broader agenda at work all along. Members of the Obama administration should be applauded for seeing through the bogus holy war they ignited.

In their objection to Obama's compromise, the bishops argue that it "continues to involve needless government intrusion in the internal governance of religious institutions, and to threaten government coercion of religious people and groups to violate their most deeply held convictions."

This criticism is ironic, since the bishops are insisting that employers have the right to force their personal morality on their employees. They are demanding that employers to be allowed to coerce employees -- through the denial of benefits -- into accepting their personal or religious convictions.

If such a scenario had been allowed, it would have created a hostile work environment for women and gay and lesbian employees not only in Catholic institutions, but in the secular work force as well. It would have legitimized, if not codified, our society's disrespect for the rights of women, gays and lesbians.

Most of all, it would have fostered the anti-feminist, anti-gay culture that so many right-wing religious and political groups dream of.

Mr. Obama's compromise averts what could have been the beginning of a disaster for human and civil rights. If given this pass, the bishops would no doubt have continued to achieve the goals set out by the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty.

And if that had been allowed to happen, eventually this could have happened, too: Poor- and working-class women would be denied adequate health care, trafficked women who are systematically raped would be denied reproductive care, those threatened by the global HIV epidemic would be denied life-saving prophylactics, and gays and lesbians would be denied the rights to which they are entitled as working, tax-paying citizens.

By refusing to cave in to the demands a religious and political right-wing agenda, Mr. Obama actually upheld the Constitution: He ensured that most individuals in this nation will be guaranteed equal protection under the laws.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Obama Contraception Mandate Supported by 23 Christian, Jewish and Muslim Leaders

Yesterday The Huffington Post published a letter from 23 national religious leaders -- including Christians, Jews and at least one Muslim -- supporting the Obama administration's insistence that church-related institutions must follow the access-to-contraceptives requirement of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.  Following is the text of the letter and the list of signers:

We stand with President Obama and Secretary Sebelius in their decision to reaffirm the importance of contraceptive services as essential preventive care for women under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and to assure access under the law to American women, regardless of religious affiliation. We respect individuals' moral agency to make decisions about their sexuality and reproductive health without governmental interference or legal restrictions. We do not believe that specific religious doctrine belongs in health care reform -- as we value our nation's commitment to church-state separation. We believe that women and men have the right to decide whether or not to apply the principles of their faith to family planning decisions, and to do so they must have access to services. The Administration was correct in requiring institutions that do not have purely sectarian goals to offer comprehensive preventive health care. Our leaders have the responsibility to safeguard individual religious liberty and to help improve the health of women, their children and families. Hospitals and universities across the religious spectrum have an obligation to assure that individuals' conscience and decisions are respected and that their students and employees have access to this basic health care service. We invite other religious leaders to speak out with us for universal coverage of contraception.

Catholics for Choice, Jon O'Brien, President
Central Conference of American Rabbis, Rabbi Jonathan Stein, President
Concerned Clergy for Choice, Rabbi Dennis Ross, Director
Disciples Justice Action Network, Rev. Dr. Ken Brooker Langston, Director
Episcopal Divinity School, The Very Reverend Dr. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale, President
Episcopal Women's Caucus, Rev. Dr Elizabeth Kaeton, Convener
Hadassah, Marcie Natan, National President
Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, Robert Barkin, Interim Executive Vice President
Jewish Women International, Lori Weinstein, Executive Director
Methodist Federation for Social Action, Jill Warren, Executive Director
Muslims for Progressive Values, Ani Zonneveld, President
National Council of Jewish Women, Nancy Kaufman, CEO
Planned Parenthood Clergy Advisory Board, Rev. Jane Emma Newall, Chair
Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, Executive Vice President
Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Rev. Steve Clapp, Chair
Religious Institute, Rev. Dr. Debra W. Haffner, Executive Director
Society for Humanistic Judaism, M. Bonnie Cousens, Executive Director
The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO
Union Theological Seminary, Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, President
Unitarian Universalist Association, Rev. Peter Morales, President
United Church of Christ, Rev. Geoffrey Black, General Minister and President
Women's League for Conservative Judaism, Rita L. Wertlieb, President; Sarrae G. Crane, Executive Director

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Bishops, GOP Wrong on Contraception, Houston Chronicle Letter-Writers Say

Three letters to the editor posted yesterday on the website of The Houston Chronicle (and published in today's print edition) explain why the Obama administration is right -- and the U.S. Catholic bishops and their conservative cronies are wrong -- on the subject of requiring church-related colleges, charities and other institutions to provide their employees access to contraceptives.

The first two letters are the most cogent.  The first argues that for decades Catholic women and Catholic married couples have gotten the morality of birth control much more accurately than church leaders:  the real sinners are those who promote unbridled, unsustainable global population growth.  The second says that the bishops are trying to get the U.S. government to force Catholic employees to accept contraception teachings that violate their consciences.

(The third letter, arguing that institutions that take government money should follow government rules, is not as helpful -- in that the Obama administration is correct whether the institutions in question are getting government money or not:  the public funding is not the primary issue, but rather the right of every employee to follow his or her conscience on family planning.)

Here is the text of the first two letters:

Outdated notion

Regarding "Battle lines form over reproductive rights" (Page B12, Sunday), Kathleen Parker is quite correct that the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church opposes providing birth control in Catholic hospitals. What she is overlooking is the fact that the hierarchy and the parishioners are in completely different places.

For years the Catholic leaders have said that the use of contraception is unnatural and a sin for those who use it, and for years women all over the world have wisely ignored those teachings. One recent study found that over a lifetime at least 90 percent of women have used contraceptive devices of various types.

All of these women have sinned against God according to the church. Yet, despite this the church leaders continue to stubbornly cling to outdated notions about what is and is not natural.

The human population of this Earth is about 7 billion and growing steadily. Because of the growth in some areas, people have trouble obtaining clean water, adequate food, sanitary facilities, basic medical care and other necessities. That's sinful.

Instead of resisting new health regulations, I invite the leaders of the Catholic Church to think about what is really moral.

We need to get this planet's human population under control. People are entitled to a decent existence, and if we are tied to worn out thinking by our church leaders and the silly notion that it is a sin to use contraceptives, we are just not going to get there.

Robert L. Fischer, Houston

Archaic ideas

Kathleen Parker charges the Obama administration with "utter disregard for religious liberty" because the new health care law will require Catholic institutions to provide birth control coverage in their insurance packages. Actually, Obama is protecting the Catholic laity and non-Catholic employees of Catholic institutions from the Catholic hierarchy's archaic ideas.

What the Catholic Church wants is for the federal government to enforce a policy on its members that it is unable to enforce itself on 90 percent of them.

If you look at the percentage of Catholics using birth control or even the pill, it hardly differs from the American average.

It wasn't that long ago that the Catholic Church was arrogant enough to use the government to force its birth control doctrine on everyone in the state of Connecticut, including married couples in the privacy of their own homes. It blew up in their face, and the Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) helped to establish the right of privacy that figured heavily in Roe v. Wade.

Personally, I would be more comfortable if Catholic institutions were allowed to offer their employees two insurance options, with or without birth control coverage, were it not for the risk of retaliation against Catholic employees who opted for coverage of contraception.

Walter D. Kamphoefner, Bryan