Ever since the Republican presidential race began, the media have been full of stories about the "divided" GOP, the split between fiscal and social conservatives, and the differences between religious conservatives and the Tea Party. Not anymore. President Obama last week handed the right a clear issue that unites Republicans and will draw independent voters to the polls.
Of course I'm referring to the president's decision to let stand a Department of Health and Human Services rule that religious colleges, elementary schools, charities, and hospitals are not exempt from providing free contraceptive services to their employees under what used to be known as the "conscience clause" for religious organizations. The administration changed course in the face of furious opposition, but Republicans had already gotten the wedge issue they need this fall.
Under the HHS ruling, only religious groups that hire and serve members of their own religion are allowed to keep the exemption. Any entity that serves any person in need, regardless of that person's religion—which means just about every religious hospital, adoption agency, and school in the United States—would be forced to provide free contraception, sterilization, and morning-after pill coverage to their employees. Many Catholics find morning-after pills to be tantamount to abortion.
Yet when the president gave a landmark speech in 2009 at the University of Notre Dame, he said this about his healthcare reform plans: "Let's honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause."
So much for that. The president's idea of "honoring the conscience of those who disagree with abortion" was to propose that religious institutions not be included in the conscience clause under healthcare reform. Under his latest "accommodation," they are stilled forced to comply with a federal mandate to provide free contraception and morning-after pills to employees. Despite what you've read about his so-called compromise, the president did not broaden the exemption for religious institutions, which still face millions in fines if they refuse to provide free morning-after pills. Instead, he chose to mandate that private insurance companies give contraception, sterilization procedures, and morning-after pills out for free—an unprecedented federal mandate on private companies that seems to have gone unnoticed by all.
Saying that the problem has been resolved because now the "preventive services" will be given away for free misses the point. To the churches, this was never about money. It was always about principle. Churches weren't refusing to give out morning-after pills because they were too expensive. If you were to decide that something you found to be morally wrong in the past was suddenly morally acceptable simply because it was now offered for free, well, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, we can all agree on what you are and simply haggle over the price. Making a moral wrong free of cost doesn't make it a moral right. That's why this issue isn't going away anytime soon.
The administration's position means that an average Catholic service organization still has three options: first, it can violate its own religious beliefs by providing coverage—even if it is for free—for procedures it believes is immoral, something very few of them are likely to do; second, it can not provide health care coverage for its employees, and face millions in fines and possible bankruptcy; or third, apply for the still-narrow exemption for churches by hiring only Catholics as employees and serving only Catholic patients, students, or clients. Non-Catholics would be turned away.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney announced this last week that "we obviously believe this to be constitutional" and that religious institutions have a year to comply. Donald Cardinal Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington says the writing is on the wall: "There can no longer be any doubt that religious liberty in our country is in jeopardy."
Those who think this is simply a fight about women having a right to free contraception are wrong. This is bigger than contraception, and bigger than the Catholic Church. That's why leaders from some 40 non-Catholic organizations—Orthodox Jewish, Mennonite, and evangelical Christians, to name a few—signed a letter to the White House opposing the move.
The fear is that in its disregard for organized religion and the community services those religious groups deliver in educating children, providing healthcare and serving the poor, the administration will run good hospitals and schools out of business. That's a problem for parents of children at parish schools across the country; for millions of teachers and nurses and social workers who may lose their health insurance, many of whom are women; and for untold numbers of Americans who are the recipients of faith-based community service organizations that may go bankrupt. It's a problem for private insurance companies now forced to give free coverage. And it's a worry for leaders of other religions who think they might be next.
It feeds the narrative that we've seen reflected in the polls for the last two years: voters think Obamacare will make healthcare worse. A majority of Americans has been opposed to the president's health care reform overhaul since it became law in 2009, with double-digit margins currently running against it. One recent Rasmussen poll put support for repeal ahead by twenty points, with opposition to Obamacare leading among independents, and most importantly, among both men and women. By mandating that private insurance companies provide free contraception for all Americans, the Obama administration has expanded federal control over both private insurance companies and religious institutions in a stunning way. As much as the White House would like this issue to die quietly now that there's been an "accommodation," I wouldn't bet on it. People see right through the administration's cynical ploy.
With this decision, the White House came across as deeply antagonistic to organized religion and disposed to big bureaucratic solutions at a time of vast distrust of the government. That's why this is so galvanizing to Catholic voters in swing states, especially Hispanics; to libertarians and First Amendment advocates; to independents and women concerned about Obamacare; to religious and social conservatives; and to those involved with faith-based organizations in their communities. It unites the entire GOP field, from libertarian Ron Paul to Mormon Mitt Romney to Catholics Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.
Taking on organized religion over a matter of conscience was a huge miscalculation that backfired. The left went too far, and voters aren't likely to forget it. Everything that the right has suspected about Obama and his big-government plans came true with this ruling.