It was perfectly proper for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to order all employer-provided heath insurance plans to cover birth control service. The furor over the issue stems partly from the Roman Catholic hierarchy’s understandable but expansive assertion of its right to teach its version of morality. But conservative politicians, evangelicals and other conservative groups have seized on the issue as a political lever in the obvious hope of overturning the new national health-care act and possibly make Barack Obama a one-term president.
The blustering campaign against the contraception mandate flies in the face of the Constitution’s equal-protection guarantee, the long American tradition of the separation of church and state and the right of every woman to have access to birth control if she wants it. Almost all American women have done so at some point, including Roman Catholic women.
The Supreme Court dealt with the general issue in a 1990 case involving workers who were fired for using peyote, an illegal drug, as part of a religious ritual. It held that they could be denied unemployment benefits. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote then that to “make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land” would permit “every citizen to become a law unto himself.”
Maine’s Attorney General William Schneider has jumped into the fray on the contraception issue, joining 12 other state attorneys general in a letter threatening a lawsuit if the Obama administration enforced the mandate. Mr. Schneider did not immediately join a seven-state suit, but he said that didn’t mean he had changed his mind on the issue.
Leading the charge against the mandate is Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He called the initial order “a terribly misguided judgment” and an intrusion “into the inner life of a church.” He urged Catholics at large to speak out in protest.
Invoking the First Amendment, he said: “Never before has the federal government forced individuals and organizations to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience. This shouldn’t happen in a land where free exercise of religion ranks first in the Bill of Rights.”
He was wrong there. The mandate only makes birth control available. It does not promote contraception or force its use.
All 181 Catholic bishops have now publicly denounced the contraception mandate, joining a campaign to force the Obama administration to reverse it or to terminate it by law or court action. Having lost control of the faithful on contraception — 95 percent of Catholic women report they have used it — they are in effect turning to the government for help.
In a conciliatory move, the president ordered that employees of religiously linked schools, hospitals and charities would still have access to free contraception coverage, but that those organizations would not have to pay for it. Instead, health insurance companies would be required to provide it free of charge. The Catholic bishops, evangelicals, other conservatives and the Republican candidates for president all have dismissed the modification as meaningless.
The bishops’ anti-mandate campaign is stronger here than in some other parts of the country, but so is a countercampaign favoring the universal insurance coverage of birth-control services. About 25 percent of Mainers are Catholics, according to the 2010 Official Catholic Directory, compared with 22 percent nationally.
The Maine Democratic chairman, Ben Grant, commented on the anti-mandate campaign after his communications director, Lizzie Reinholt, had said simply, “It won’t work.” Mr. Grant predicted that the Republican Party would fail to attract Catholic votes this year. He said: “The reasons are simple. Most Catholics do not agree with their church hierarchy on the issues the GOP wants to promote. In addition, research shows that the ‘Catholic vote’ is concerned with the exact same issues as the rest of the public — finding jobs and putting money in the pockets of struggling Americans. The GOP doesn’t have a good message for those voters, whether they are Catholic or otherwise.”
For all its moral and constitutional trappings, the anti-mandate effort should and probably will fail.