The Bishops’ Big Break: With Bush in the White House, the US bishops see clear sailing on their conservative agenda

By Tegan A. Culler
Summer 2001

The election of George W. Bush has proved fortuitous for the nation’s Catholic bishops. The policy priorities of the bishops—as expressed by their national organization, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)—neatly dovetail with those of the conservative Bush administration. And for its part, the administration has pinned its electoral hopes on the Catholic vote, making it eager to keep the bishops on its good side. Four issues stand at the intersection of the interests of the bishops and the Bush administration: the “faith-based initiative” to allow religious organizations more latitude in receiving federal money for social services programs; voucher programs to allow federal education dollars to go to religious schools; exemptions from providing reproductive healthcare services for religious healthcare providers and fur-t her restrictions on reproductive rights.

Bush’s FBI

Encouraging religious institutions to play a greater role in the provision of social services by easing restrictions on their receipt of federal money is a cornerstone of Bush’s domestic program, despite criticism that the program would violate the separation of church and state and allow religious organizations to discriminate in hiring[1] It is estimated that the faith-based program would result in as much as $8 billion going to religious organizations to provide services ranging from housing to job training to drug treatment programs. [2] While he has assiduously courted religious leaders of every stripe, Bush appears to have paid particular attention to the Catholic church and has been rewarded with the support of the Catholic hierarchy. Just 11 days after he took office, Bush hosted more than two dozen Catholic bishops, directors of Catholic social service programs and conservative Catholic leaders at the White House, where they proclaimed themselves pleased with the direction of the program. [3] Due to its historic involvement in social service programs, Catholic church-based social service agencies are well-positioned to be major participants in the faith-based proposal. Catholic Charities USA is a leading provider of social services in the US, with a network of more than 1,400 agencies. In 1995, it provided services to 10 million people.[4] Approximately 65% of Catholic Charities’ $2.3 billion annual budget comes from government sources.[5]

In the six months that Bush has been in office, the bishops have appeared at a series of high-profile events publicizing the faith-based initiative and released two official statements of support for the program. In a statement dated February 12, Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony, the chair of the bishops’ Domestic Policy Committee, said the bishops conference “welcomes [Bush’s] initiative to recognize and assist the role of ’faith-based and community groups,’” and listed the various Catholic-based social service agencies— including Catholic Charities, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development and the Catholic Health Association—that would presumably be participating in the program.[6] Then on June 13, the bishops endorsed legislation to implement the faith-based program.[7]

The Antichoice Agenda

As in the past, this year the bishops have been more publicly active on their anti-choice agenda than on any other issue. In April, the USCCB’s Cathleen Cleaver sent a letter to Congress urging lawmakers to support the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, a roundabout attack on abortion rights that many reproductive rights advocates believe seeks to establish fetal personhood.[8] In May, the bishops’ Office of Pro-Life Activities condemned a recommendation by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists that women be given advance prescriptions for emergency contraception to reduce the need for abortion. USCCB spokesperson Cathleen Cleaver implied that the doctors’ group was lying about emergency contraception not being an abortifacient.[9]

In 2002, the bishops told Congress that the United States is spending too much money on family planning programs.

The “global gag rule” has been a particular focus of anti-choice activity for the bishops. Reinstated by Bush on the first business day of his administration, this executive order prevents foreign nongovernmental organizations from receiving any US family planning funds if they perform abortions or engage in abortion advocacy, even with their own money. Reproductive health advocates have been particularly concerned about this measure, as the World Health Organization estimates that 80,000 women die annually from unsafe abortion.[10]

Ignoring this reality, Gail Quinn of the USCCB’s Office of Pro-Life Activities sent a letter to Congress asking legislators to maintain the gag rule because it “respects the dignity of poor women in developing nations.”[11] The bishops also sent two letters to members of Congress on May 1 and May 7 in response to further efforts to overturn the gag rule.[12]

The bishops have extended their work in the international arena beyond abortion to protesting US funding for family planning programs. In testimony offered March 28, 2001, before the House of Representatives on US foreign assistance for 2002, the bishops told Congress that the United States is spending too much money on family planning programs.[13]

The Fight Over Exemptions

In his February statement on the faith-based initiative, Archbishop Mahony included the Catholic health system as part of the Catholic community’s commitment to the “battle on poverty.” The Catholic health system, however, is part of another hard-fought battle: the fight over exemption clauses. As CFFC and other organizations have worked to bring the routine denial of reproductive health services at Catholic healthcare institutions to the attention of the public and policymakers, new laws protecting patient access to such services have been introduced at the state and federal level. The Catholic hierarchy has responded by making it a priority to win exemptions from these laws. Such “conscience” clauses, as the Catholic institutions term them, exempt employers and healthcare institutions from providing or paying for services to which they object on religious grounds, but fail to heed the consciences of individual patients or doctors. Beyond abortion or abortion counseling, services Catholic institutions are seeking exemptions from are contraceptive counseling and provision, emergency contraception for women who have been raped, tubal ligations and vasectomies, and certain assisted reproduction techniques.[14] The exemptions Catholic healthcare providers seek apply regardless of the religion of the healthcare consumer or doctor, and whether or not the religious institution is directly involved in promulgating the religion.

The debate has received prominent attention in the last year. In July 2000, the Washington, DC, City Council passed a bill mandating that health plans that cover prescription medications cover contraceptives (See Conscience XXI:3, Autumn 2000, for details). Because the bill was passed with no exemption for Catholic organizations, the bishops launched a high-profile campaign to scuttle the measure, eventually bringing it to the attention of conservative members of the congressional committee that oversees the District’s budget. The bill was eventually pocket-vetoed by District of Columbia Mayor Anthony Williams under intense pressure from the church.

In New York, the New York State Catholic Conference stalled passage of a women’s health bill that would mandate insurance coverage for mammograms, osteoporosis prevention measures and Pap smears, as well as contraceptives, because of its insistence on an exemption for Catholic providers. In March, New York Archbishop Edward Egan and other New York bishops made a rare full-day appearance in the state capital of Albany to lobby for the special exemption.[15]

In April, under pressure from the Texas Conference of Catholic Health Facilities, the Texas House of Representatives added a religious exemption clause to a bill requiring insurers to cover prescription contraceptives other than oral contraception, which insurers were already required to cover. The state already exempts religious HMOs from providing services to which they object.[16] The measure became law on June 15, 2001. Also in June, a contraceptive coverage law was passed in Missouri that exempted health insurers owned by religious entities, as well as individuals or entities that object to contraception on a “moral, ethical or religious” basis.[17]

Illinois legislators struggled through a year-long debate over a bill that would have required hospitals to provide emergency contraception to women who had been raped and desired the medication. Catholic hospitals and the Catholic Conference of Illinois opposed the bill because it contained no exemption for Catholic hospitals, some which hold that emergency contraception is an abortifacient. In May, the state Legislature acceded to the demands of Catholic providers and passed a watered-down version of the bill that only requires hospitals to provide women with information about emergency contraception and where they can receive it, and allows Catholic hospital to develop their own protocol to fulfill the mandate.[18] Similar measures introduced in Maryland and New York were also opposed by Catholic hospitals and the state Catholic conferences.[19]

Beyond abortion or abortion counseling, services Catholic institutions are seeking exemptions from are contraceptive counseling and provision, emergency contraception for women who have been raped, tubal ligations and vasectomies, and certain assisted reproduction techniques.

In a similar vein, bills codifying exemptions for pharmacists who object on moral grounds to filling certain types of prescriptions, such as emergency contraception or oral contraceptives, have also been proposed in several states. In 2001 alone, such bills were considered in Ohio, Kansas, Kentucky, and Indiana. These measures are modeled on a pharmacist exemption clause that became law in South Dakota in 1998.[20]

Thus far, such measures have been confined to the state level. However, as the US bishops have signaled their intent to push for national religious exemption legislation. The USCCB lists among its legislative priorities “legislation to prevent government discrimination against healthcare entities for refusing to participate in abortion or other morally objectionable services.” In addition to this stand-alone measure, the legislative program also declares the bishops’ intent to pursue exemptions from any abortion services or contraceptive coverage mandated under the federal employees healthcare program, and from any contraceptive coverage legislation passed in the District of Columbia. It also states that the bishops will seek an exemption from any contraceptive coverage or abortion services mandate in a patient’s bill of rights, as well as seek a measure to ensure that “medical communications by a plan physician are consistent with the ’Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Services.’”[21] This suggests an HMO “gag” clause for services prohibited by the Directives, including abortion, contraceptive counseling or distribution, female and male sterilization and many assisted reproduction techniques.

School Days

The US Catholic hierarchy shares another priority with Bush and other social conservatives: school vouchers that will allow parents to use tax monies for religious or private education. Catholic schools are expected to be key beneficiaries of any voucher program.[22] As such, vouchers are a major goal of the US bishops conference, and Catholic bishops have been active in promoting voucher plans around the country.[23] Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland’s support for that city’s voucher program is seen as key to its success.[24] In Michigan last fall, the state Catholic conference threw its weight behind a ballot initiative that would have created a voucher program, only to see Catholic voters reject the measure 64% to 36%.[25] New York Archbishop Edward Egan has spoken publicly in favor of voucher programs.[26]Archbishop Adam Maida of Detroit personally began a telephone campaign to recruit Catholic parents to vote in favor of Michigan’s voucher proposal, which was defeated, and the California bishops gave their qualified support to a ballot proposal to create a voucher program, only to see that also defeated.[27] The Michigan Catholic Conference reportedly spent $2 million in support of the voucher ballot initiative.[28]

At the same time that the bishops have been busy supporting school vouchers, exemptions for religious healthcare providers, restrictions on reproductive rights at home and abroad and the faith-based initiative, they have been largely silent on the Bush administration’s $1.35 trillion tax cut, despite its disregard for many aspects of the bishops’ domestic social agenda. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a nonprofit research institute that analyzes government policies affecting lower- and middle-income people, the administration’s claims that the tax cut would primarily benefit middle and lower-income Americans “represent bold public relations strokes but are generally incomplete or misleading.”[29]

According to the CBPP, Bush’s tax plan gives only four percent of the total tax cut to the bottom 40% of earners, and many low-income, working fa mi-lies who pay no income tax will not receive any benefits under Bush’s plan. [30] CBPP asserted that “the propos-al will cause income disparities, which are at record levels for recent decades, to widen further.”[31]

The Bush administration’s proposed 2002 budget makes substantial cuts in many important domestic programs. Among the cuts proposed in the administration’s budget are a $200 million decrease in the Child Care and Development Block Grant, a 50% cut from the discretionary portion of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, a $15.9 million cut for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and a 42.5% cut for rural health programs.

The administration’s budget also eliminated the Community Access Program, which supported integrated delivery of comprehensive health services to the uninsured and under-insured, and put a freeze on the Ryan White grants to AIDS service providers.[32] The administration touted its increases for education, but admitted that some of the funding it included in the “increase” was already present in a different form. Indeed, according to the CBPP, every proposed increase in education funding over the next five years would be shifted from other discretionary programs, which generally fund job training, and services to children, the disabled, the elderly, or the poor.[33] Moreover, the tax cut is based on a projected budget surplus, but the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the surplus might be less in the long term than originally believed. If the surplus fails to materialize or is substantially smaller than anticipated, there will have to be large cuts in spending, or part of the Social Security surplus, will have to be used to cover any budget deficit.[34]

Network, a national Catholic social justice lobbying organization that works to infuse principles of Catholic social justice teaching into public life, blasted the “unnecessary and recklessly large” tax cut.[35] Network noted: “Giving a $1.35 trillion tax cut, coupled with no substantial investments in human needs programs, is shameful. . . . Claiming that the federal government has a surplus when so many human beings do not have the opportunity to live in dignity . . . is unconscionable.”[36]

By contrast, the US bishops made no such outraged statements, and indeed were largely silent throughout the process—despite the fact that a number of the discretionary programs that would be affected by the administration’s budget are specifically supported in the bishops’ legislative program. In fact, the bishops officially weighed in on the issue only once before the final vote. In a letter to President Bush dated May 23, 2001—just two days before the final tax cut compromise was reached—USCCB President Joseph Fiorenza urged the president to maintain a provision in the compromise bill that would make the child tax credit refundable for families making more than $10,000 per year.[37]The House version would have required family income to be nearly double that amount before the credit would be refundable. The provision, which was maintained, will benefit 7.6 million low- and moderate- income families, according to the CBPP.[38] In his letter to Bush, Fiorenza noted that the child-tax provision was “the only provision of the tax bill, which directly helps poor families.”[39]

However, once the tax bill was passed, the bishops did note that the measure excluded a major component of Bush’s faith-based initiative: tax breaks for citizens who donate to charities but do not itemize their taxes and increased tax breaks for corporations that give to charitable groups. The provision, one of Bush’s first campaign promises, was expected to increase charitable giving by an estimated $15 billion per year.[40]

Clearly the bishops realize that momentum lies with the conservative parts of their agenda and are eager to harness the political winds to their advantage. With social justice issues in eclipse, the average Catholic could not be faulted for concluding that the bishops’ only goals are the faith-based initiative, school vouchers, religious exemptions and restrictions on reproductive rights.


  1. Steve Benen, “Leap of Faith,” Church & State, March 2001.
  2. Steve Benen, “Rep. Watts and GOP Congressional Allies Mount a ’Faith-Based Summit,’ But Hundreds of Clergy Profess Opposition to Bush’s Religion-Funding Scheme,” Church & State, June 2001.
  3. Brian McGuire, “Bush Meets with Catholics on Faith-Based Initiatives,” National Catholic Register, Feb. 11-17, 2001.
  4. Catholic Almanac 2001, Matthew Bunsun, ed., Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, Huntington, IN, 2001.
  5. Brain Anderson, “How Catholic Charities Lost Its Soul,” The Catholic World Report, October 2000.
  6. Statement by Cardinal Roger Mahony, “Faith-Based and Community Initiatives,” National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Feb. 12, 2001.
  7. “Catholic Bishops Reaffirm Support for Faith-based Initiative, Urge Congress to Pass Community Solutions Act,” National Conference of Catholic Bishops, June 13, 2001.
  8. “Bishops’ Spokeswoman Urges Support for Victims of Violence Act,” National Conference of Catholic Bishops, April 25, 2001.
  9. “Bishops’ Spokeswoman Urges ACOG to Tell Women the Truth about the Morning after Pill,” National Conference of Catholic Bishops, May 2, 2001.
  10. “US NGO Leaders Praise EU Actin on Bush ‘Global Gag Rule,'” Catholics for a Free Choice, February 7, 2001.
  11. Letter to Members of Congress from Gail Quinn, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, April 18, 2001.
  12. Letters to Members of Congress from Rev. Msgr. William P. Fay, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, May 1 and May 7, 2001.
  13. “Testimony on 2002 Foreign Assistance,” United States Catholic Conference and Catholic Relief Services, March 28, 2001.
  14. See CFFC’s series of reports on Catholic hospital mergers and access to reproductive health care at Catholic-affiliated health institutions.
  15. Deborah Martinez, “Cardinal’s Trip Lands Him in Health Care Debate,” Albany Times Union, March 14, 2001.
  16. Karen Brooks, “Clause Clears Way on Bill on Medical Coverage of the Pill,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, April 10, 2001.
  17. Summary of Missouri House Bill 762, signed by Gov. Holden June 21, 2001.
  18. Ray Long and Rick Pearson, “Lawmakers OK Plan for Rape Victims,” Chicago Tribune, May 4, 2001.
  19. “Maryland House Bill Would Require Availability of Emergency Contraception for Rape Survivors,” Kaiser Daily Reproductive Health Report, Feb. 13, 2001; “New York Bill Would Require Hospital Emergency Rooms to Offer Emergency Contraception to Rape Victims,” Kaiser Daily Reproductive Health Report, April 10, 2001.
  20. “Pharmacists, Businesses Clash Over Birth-Control Sales,” AP/Dallas Morning News, March 15, 2001.
  21. “The USCC Legislative Program for the 107th Congress,” March 22, 2001.
  22. Joseph Conn, “Bush Tells Bishops that School Vouchers Need a New Name,” Church & State, March 2001.
  23. “The USCC Legislative Program for the 107th Congress,” March 22, 2001.
  24. Margot Patterson, “School Voucher Advocates Want ‘Right to Choose,'” National Catholic Reporter, May 4, 2001.
  25. “Voters and Vouchers: The People Speak,” Church & State, January 2001.
  26. Mary Ann Poust, “Archbishop Egan Calls School Choice the Path to Quality Education,” Catholic New York, October 5, 200.
  27. Eve Tushnet, “In Vouchers, Details Matter for Church,” National Catholic Register, Oct. 29- Nov. 4, 2000.
  28. Andrea Billups, “School Voucher Initiative a Heated Race in Michigan,” Washington Times, October 10, 2000.
  29. Robert Greenstein and Isaac Shapiro, “Taking Down the Toll Booth to the Middle Class, ” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, February 6, 2001.
  30. Robert Greenstein and Isaac Shapiro, “Taking Down the Toll Booth to the Middle Class, ” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, February 6, 2001.
  31. Robert Greenstein, Isaac Shapiro and James Sly, “Under Conference Agreement, Dollar Gains for Top One Percent Essentially the Same as Under House and Bush Packages,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, May 26, 2001.
  32. Theresa McGovern and Ginsberg Lahey, “Leaving Women and Children Behind: The First 100 Days of the Bush Administration,” Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, April 2001.
  33. Robert Greenstein, “Following the Money: The Administration’s Budget Priorities,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, April 3, 2001.
  34. Robert Greenstein, “Following the Money: The Administration’s Budget Priorities,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, April 3, 2001.
  35. “Network Opposes Unnecessary Tax Cuts,” Network release, April 3, 2001.
  36. “Budget Vote Fails the Moral Test,” Network release, May 22, 2001.
  37. “U.S. Bishops Urge Bush to Support Refundable Child Tax Credit,” National Conference of Catholic Bishops, May 24, 2001.
  38. Allen Dupree and Wendell Primus, “Senate Child Tax Credit More Advantageous for 16.5 Million Children than House Version,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, May 22, 2001.
  39. “U.S. Bishops Urge Bush to Support Refundable Child Tax Credit,” National Conference of Catholic Bishops, May 24, 2001.
  40. Dana Milbank and Glenn Kessler, “Charities Decry Tax Bill Setback: Groups Questioning Bush’s Commitment,” Washington Post, May 30, 2001.


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