Obama Catholic Contraception Fight Isn't Over As Church Sues

The "evolution" in Obama's thinking on the issue of religious freedom is disappointing.

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Monday the Catholic Church filed 12 different federal lawsuits against the administration on behalf of 43 Catholic dioceses and organizations ranging from local Catholic Charities to parish schools, hospitals, and colleges. The lawsuits are in response to last year's ruling by the Department of Health and Human Services, known as the HHS, which mandates all healthcare plans must provide sterilizations and abortion-inducing contraceptives for free, with an exemption for churches only, not broader religious organizations. Only churches which serve solely the members of the same faith are exempt; religious organizations which serve the general public are not covered—the most narrowly defined "conscience clause" ever adopted under federal law.   

Here in Washington, Cardinal Wuerl published an open letter making the case for the lawsuits and urging Catholics to join him at a rally next month within blocks of the White House at George Washington University. Clearly the Church is not backing down:

The lawsuit in no way challenges either women's established legal right to obtain and use contraception or the right of employers to provide coverage for it if they so choose. This lawsuit is about religious freedom. It is understandable to feel somewhat disheartened to see our government attempt to force the church out of the public square. To be clear, that is the message that the HHS mandate conveys: our beliefs are not welcome. Those who have the temerity to hold onto their convictions will be fined.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Catholic contraception controversy.]

This issue is not going away. Expect the letter from the cardinal to be read at masses this weekend, and similar letters to be read in the 43 other dioceses who are party to the lawsuits. I'm Catholic, and I've already gotten a mass email on the lawsuits from the head of the local Catholic Charities here; I'm sure there will be many more. The law firm of Jones Day is coordinating the litigation nationally, and the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. has set up a website to explain that this is about more than contraception: It's about the freedom to practice religion and serve the public without government intrusion. The chancellor of the Washington archdiocese, Jane Belford, argues that under this administration's policy, the work of Mother Teresa would no longer qualify as the work of a religious organization. That's a great argument.

People get this. In recent polls, Pew found that a majority (granted, a slim one) of those polled agreed that religious organizations should be given an exemption. Gallup found that six in 10 Americans were following the issue closely; that a majority agreed with religious leaders, not Obama; and that men and women generally shared the same view. The differences were mostly based on party identification, not gender, with independents split right down the middle. I don't think the president realized how politically risky the issue would be when he picked this fight.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Should Catholic and Other Religious Institutions Have to Cover Birth Control?]

In addition to Cardinal Wuerl and Cardinal Dolan of New York, Notre Dame University is suing as well. Two years ago this week, President Obama gave the commencement address at Notre Dame. Here's the key excerpt—a little long, but worth it:

A few days after I won the Democratic nomination, I received an e-mail from a doctor who told me that while he voted for me in the Illinois primary, he had a serious concern that might prevent him from voting for me in the general election. He described himself as a Christian who was strongly pro-life -- but that was not what was preventing him potentially from voting for me.

What bothered the doctor was an entry that my campaign staff had posted on my website -- an entry that said I would fight "right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose." The doctor said he had assumed I was a reasonable person, he supported my policy initiatives to help the poor and to lift up our educational system, but that if I truly believed that every pro-life individual was simply an ideologue who wanted to inflict suffering on women, then I was not very reasonable. He wrote, "I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words." Fair-minded words.

After I read the doctor's letter, I wrote back to him and I thanked him. And I didn't change my underlying position, but I did tell my staff to change the words on my website. And I said a prayer that night that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me. Because when we do that -- when we open up our hearts and our minds to those who may not think precisely like we do or believe precisely what we believe -- that's when we discover at least the possibility of common ground.

That's when we begin to say, "Maybe we won't agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually, it has both moral and spiritual dimensions.

So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions, let's reduce unintended pregnancies. (Applause.) Let's make adoption more available. (Applause.) Let's provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term. (Applause.) Let's honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause ..."

What a difference from two years ago. The "evolution" in Obama's thinking on this issue is disappointing. It goes to the heart of why so many people feel let down by him. The polarization and divisiveness are so unnecessary, and the president's gone a long way from extending the "same presumption of good faith" that was extended to him. Like Obama's position in the gay marriage debate, his stance feels politically motivated. I'd be willing to bet that letter-writing doctor will not be voting to re-elect the president.

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