In the News 2012
Church & State

The Bishops, Obama and Religious Freedom


Last fall, Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York City unleashed a stinging attack on President Barack Obama.

Dolan, who serves as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), issued a Sept. 30 press release asserting that religious liberty is “increasingly and in unprecedented ways under assault in America” thanks to the Obama administration. He announced that the bishops would form a new Washington lobbying unit to fight Obama’s policies on reproductive justice, gay rights and other social issues affecting church-affiliated schools and ministries.

A few weeks later, Dolan received an invitation to the White House. A detailed account of the Nov. 8 meeting has not been issued, but Dolan later reported to his fellow bishops that he left the meeting feeling upbeat.

“I found the president of the United States to be very open to the sensitivities of the Catholic community,” Dolan remarked. “I left there feeling a bit more at peace about this issue than when I entered.”

Shortly after that, Obama gave Dolan another reason to smile: Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced that she was rejecting a recommendation from the Food and Drug Administration to make emergency contraception more broadly available without a prescription.

The Obama-Dolan exchange underscores the political power of the U.S. bishops, a group of men who stand much more to the right on social issues than the church membership does.

As the largest Christian denomination in America, the membership of the Catholic Church is an important political constituency. It’s also volatile. Fifty-four percent of Catholic voters supported Obama in 2008, but since then the church’s bishops have been critical of the president, blasting him for, among other things, supporting legal abortion and being too gay friendly.

Dissatisfaction with the president led the USCCB to take the extraordinary step of announcing the creation of the new lobbying body called the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.

The bishops already engage in significant lobbying in Washington but said they wanted to form a unit specifically dedicated to “religious liberty and marriage issues.” It is chaired by Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., and includes a lawyer and a lobbyist, both of whom will focus on social issues full time.

Catholic News Service reported that Lori decried the tendency to treat religion “as merely a private matter between an individual and one’s own God. Instead of promoting toleration of differing religious views, some laws, some decisions and some administrative regulations treat religion not as a contributor to our nation’s common morality but rather as a divisive and disruptive force better kept out of public life.”

The new effort will become an adjunct of the bishops’ powerful and finely tuned lobbying machine in D.C. Last year, the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life surveyed the leading faith-based lobbyists in the nation’s capital. The USCCB was near the top at $26.6 million.

In addition, the bishops have the well-heeled Knights of Columbus covering their backs. Based in New Haven, Conn., the Knights’ budget was an astounding $1.7 billion in 2009, and they’ve signed on to be “advisors” to the project.

The effort is calculated to resonate with the public. There’s a reason Dolan and other bishops throw around the term “religious liberty” so much: It sounds positive to most Americans.

But to the bishops, “religious liberty” has a very specific meaning. The church hierarchy tends to use the term when seeking to have church dogma written into law for all Americans to follow or when they’re demanding exemptions from general laws that apply to all groups.

For years, church lobbyists in Washington and in state capitals have argued that Catholics have a “religious liberty” right to educate their children in Catholic schools at taxpayer expense. This led to demands for vouchers and other types of public aid for the church’s parochial school system.

Now that concept is being expanded to cover a host of other issues. Church leaders argue, for example, that the “religious liberty” of Catholics is violated when governments recognize same-sex marriage – even though no churches are required to sanction or perform such ceremonies.

Similarly, Catholic pharmacists and other health care providers are increasingly asserting that their “religious liberty” is violated if they are expected to provide certain medications (such as Plan B) or take part in certain medical procedures (emergency abortions and sterilizing operations, for example).

Announcing the formation of the new lobbying arm, Dolan listed six areas of concern: a requirement in the new health care bill that private insurers cover birth control; a requirement that groups providing services to refugees provide reproductive services to victims of trafficking and minors; demands that HIV-prevention programs include condom distribution; the administration’s support for overturning the Defense of Marriage Act; the U.S. Justice Department’s stance in favor of abolishing the “ministerial exception” that gives religious groups broad leeway to discriminate in hiring and passage of a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in New York.

In addition, Lori has publicly identified three pieces of anti-abortion legislation as priorities for the church: the Protect Life Act (H.R. 358), the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act (H.R. 361) and the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act (H.R. 1179).

None of these bills is likely to pass as stand-alone measures, but the National Catholic Register reported that church lobbyists believe House Speaker John Boehner might railroad the measures through by political horse-trading or adding them as riders to omnibus spending bills.

Health care issues have been an especially contentious flashpoint. The bill passed by Congress in 2010, the Affordable Care Act, requires coverage of contraceptives in insurance plans. It includes an exemption for religious groups that oppose artificial forms of birth control, but the church hierarchy says it’s too narrow and is pushing for a broader exemption.

Americans United submitted comments to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) asserting that an expansive exemption would likely go too far and violate the Constitution as well as jeopardize the rights of employees at Catholic-affiliated schools, hospitals, social service agencies and other institutions – many of whom may not even belong to the church. (To date, the administration has yet to act on the matter.)

On Dec. 21, the USCCB placed full-page ads in The Washington Post and The New York Times demanding that “conscience rights” be protected in any health care regulations issued by HHS. The ad was signed by 151 Catholic leaders representing hospitals, colleges and other church-affiliated institutions, among them Dolan.

(Ironically, many Catholic institutions already cover birth control in insurance plans. National Public Radio reported in December that “dozens of Catholic hospitals and universities currently offer contraceptive coverage as part of their health insurance packages.” NPR quoted Michelle Michaud, a labor and delivery nurse at Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz, Calif., who said, “We’ve always had contraceptive birth control included in our health care benefits. It’s something that we’ve come to expect for ourselves and our family.”)

The issue of Catholic hospitals has proven to be especially controversial. Church-affiliated institutions don’t provide abortion, contraceptive services or sterilizing operations. They may also refuse to follow a patient’s end-of-life directives if those directives conflict with church dogma.

When hospitals merge, as is becoming increasingly common, non-Catholic hospitals are required to adopt the church’s directives. In Louisville, Ky., a proposed merger between three hospitals is sparking controversy. One of the facilities, University Hospital, is public and serves a largely low-income population. If the merger goes through, vital services will be lost.

Last month, Americans United wrote to Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and asked him to block the merger. Subjecting a public hospital to sectarian directives, AU argued, violates the separation of church and state. (See “Successful Operation,” February 2012 Church & State.)

The hierarchy has also taken aim at the rights of gay and lesbian Americans. The bishops’ involvement in Proposition 8, a ballot referendum that repealed same-sex marriage in California in 2008, is well known, but in Washington, church officials often engage in quieter forms of lobbying to block LGBT civil rights.

Last year, church officials went so far as to ask the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to drop a proposed regulation that would have added sexual orientation as a protected class against discrimination in HUD-funded programs.

Doing so, the USCCB asserted in a press statement, “may force faith-based and other organizations, as a condition of participating in HUD programs and in contravention of their religious beliefs, to facilitate shared housing arrangements between persons who are not joined in the legal union of one man and one woman.”

The HUD flap is a good example of the church hierarchy’s common strategy of seeking public funds alongside opt outs from government regulations that the church doesn’t like. It’s discrimination, the bishops say, if they aren’t given taxpayer dollars and the “religious freedom” to spend those dollars in accordance with church law.

In November, USCCB officials complained after they were denied an HHS contract to assist victims of human trafficking. Church leaders groused loudly in the media that they were denied the contract due to anti-Catholic bias, and several of their allies in Congress picked up the drumbeat.

In fact, the bishops failed to get the contract because they weren’t willing to meet its requirements. The proposal stipulated that since victims of trafficking have often been raped or subjected to forced prostitution and other forms of sexual abuse, they must be given referrals for contraceptives and other reproductive services.

The bishops had planned to farm out the contract to other groups with the proviso that all subcontractors would agree not to provide such referrals. Therefore, they didn’t get the contract.

But that was hardly the end of the story. More than 30 Republican lawmakers signed a statement calling the move by HHS a form of discrimination, and U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) actually held a hearing on the matter.

The flap over the HHS contract exposed what may be at the heart of the matter for the bishops: access to public funds. Over the years, church-related groups have become quite adept at tapping the public purse even while demanding the right to maintain their religious identity. That may be changing.

The stakes for the church are high. Journalist Sarah Posner reported recently that public documents show that in 2011, the federal government doled out more than $753 million to Catholic Charities alone. The loss of three-quarters of a billion in public funds would be quite a blow to the church hierarchy.

With so much money on the line, it’s not surprising that some bishops are employing extreme rhetoric. In November, Cardinal Raymond Burke, the former archbishop of St. Louis who is now working at the Vatican, went so far as to assert that the United States is “well on the way” to persecuting Christians.

Burke opined that the day may come when Catholic teachings on sexuality are declared illegal.

Asked if Catholics might be arrested for their faith, he replied, “I can see it happening, yes.”

But most American Catholics aren’t worried about doing prison time. In fact, they disagree with the bishops heartily on a number of matters. Several polls, for example, show that a plurality of American Catholics favors legal abortion. A 2009 Pew Forum study found 47 percent of American Catholics saying abortion should be legal in most cases.

Nor does the American Catholic laity support the bishops’ efforts to curtail access to birth control. The figures here are nothing short of remarkable: A 2011 poll by the Guttmacher Institute found that 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women rely on artificial forms of birth control, ignoring church doctrine that labels the use of contraceptives a sin.

On gay rights, the bishops are also out of step with their flock. Polls show that Catholics are more supportive of gay rights than many Protestants. A March 2011 poll by Public Religion Research Institute found that 74 percent of U.S. Catholics support either same-sex marriage or civil unions. Only 22 percent said they oppose any form of government recognition of same-sex partnerships.

“The well-funded bishops’ lobby is backed up by industrial behemoths like the Catholic health care industry, looking after the bishops’ special interests,” Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, told Church & State. “But the 260 bishops have never represented the views or interests of the 68 million Catholics in the United States.

“Having failed to convince Catholics in the pews, the bishops are now obsessed with trying to legislate their ultraconservative interpretation of Catholic teachings into law to force Catholics and non-Catholics alike to follow their dictates,” O’Brien continued. “But polling shows that few Catholics look to their bishops when it comes to making decisions about how to vote and act. Seventy percent say that the views of the bishops are unimportant to them in deciding for whom to vote and a similarly large proportion, 73 percent, says they believe Catholic politicians are under no religious obligation to vote on issues the way the bishops recommend.”

Some members of the Catholic laity are speaking out against the bishops’ agenda. In September, a group of Catholic theologians and several Catholic office-holders published open letters to Sebelius, urging her to resist pressure from the bishops and ensure that all women receive access to contraceptives under the health care bill.

The letter from the theologians, which was signed by a dozen scholars, asserted that the “well-being of women, including their reproductive health care, is a Catholic value.” It went on to say that there is “no medical or religious justification for exempting employers from paying for some necessary aspects of women’s health care” and concluded “there is no Catholic teaching to support selective fairness.”

In fact, the bishops’ stands on issues like reproductive freedom and marriage would seem to have more in common with the Religious Right, a movement composed largely of Protestant fundamentalists, than it does the Catholic laity.

When the bishops announced their new lobbying drive, Religious Right groups were delighted.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, wrote, “I welcome their renewed commitment to the fight before us. We are united in the fight for faith, family, and freedom.”

Perkins’ overture is only the latest in an ongoing effort to bridge the gap between Catholic leaders and the Religious Right. For years, theological differences and a simmering mutual hostility kept the two camps divided. That didn’t stop many leaders in both communities from working to smooth that over, with varying degrees of success.

TV preacher Pat Robertson had a face-to-face meeting with Cardinal John J. O’Connor in May of 1988. The two met for 30 minutes to discuss social issues.

A beaming Robertson emerged to announce, “We are one…. I believe, frankly, that the evangelicals and the Catholics in America if they work together, can see many pro-family initiatives in our society, and we can also be an effective counterweight to some of the radical, leftist initiatives, the gay rights and the pro-choice, and many of the radical groups that are seeking to disrupt and destroy the family values of America.”

Little came of the effort, mainly because of the mercurial Robertson’s tendency to spout extreme statements on the air. O’Connor died in 2000.

In 1994, both O’Connor and Robertson signed on with a group of prominent evangelicals and traditionalist Catholic leaders who joined forces to endorse “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” The document espoused a vision of a united Christendom fending off the secularism of the modern age but also focused on several political issues. It called for an end to legal abortion, demanded school “choice,” blasted pornography and endorsed free-market economics.

More recently, a second group of evangelicals and Catholics linked arms to publish the Manhattan Declaration. Issued in November of 2009, the manifesto had a more militant tone, with signers vowing they “will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia” It also pledged defiance against “any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family.”

Organized by Charles Colson and Robert P. George, an ultra-conservative Catholic professor at Princeton University, the Declaration was endorsed by several Religious Right leaders and several Catholic bishops

The Religious Right-Roman Catholic hierarchy partnership isn’t quite equal. Religious Right groups are highly partisan and operate as a wing of the Republican Party. The Catholic hierarchy is in sync with the GOP on many social issues but breaks with the party on some economic issues.

The bishops are also savvy enough to keep the lines of communication open with both parties. With a Democrat in the White House, Religious Right leaders are largely shut out of the Oval Office. Top Catholic prelates, by contrast, represent a constituency that has supported the president in the past and thus find the doors open to them.

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn pointed out that many religious groups engage in lobbying in Washington and that no one is trying to take that right away from them. But, Lynn pointed out, the Catholic hierarchy and others are pursuing controversial policies that would undermine church-state separation. They should expect spirited opposition.

“What some groups call ‘religious liberty’ is really just a cover for their efforts to win taxpayer support and force everyone to live under their theology,” Lynn said. “Americans United will vigorously oppose that agenda wherever it appears.”

This article was originally published in Church & State.

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