One of Barack Obama's great attractions as a presidential candidate was his sensitivity to the feelings and intellectual concerns of religious believers. That is why it is so remarkable that he utterly botched the admittedly difficult question of how contraceptive services should be treated under the new health-care law. His administration mishandled this decision not once but twice. In the process, Obama threw his progressive Catholic allies under the bus and strengthened the hand of those inside the church who had originally sought to derail the health care law.
This might not be so surprising if Obama had presented himself as a conventional secular liberal. But he has always held himself to a more inclusive standard. His deservedly celebrated 2006 speech on religion and American public life was a deeply sophisticated and carefully balanced effort to defend the rights of both believers and nonbelievers in a pluralistic republic.
Obama's speech at Notre Dame's graduation in 2009 was another tour de force. His visit to South Bend was highly controversial among right-wing Catholics. Yet his address temporarily silenced many of his critics because it showed an appreciation for the Catholic Church's contributions to American life -- particularly through its vast array of social-service and educational institutions -- and an instinctive feeling for Catholic sensibilities.
Obama was also willing to annoy some in his liberal base during the battle for the health care bill by making sure that Catholic institutions do not have to perform or pay for abortions. Rather than praising him for this, the bishops and the Catholic right invented the idea that the health law covers abortion. It doesn't, as Sr. Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, insisted at the time. For this brave act, she took much grief from the bishops. That's why it was unconscionable for Obama to leave her hanging out to dry in the latest controversy.
At issue are regulations promulgated January 20 by the Department of Health and Human Services that required contraceptive services to be covered by the insurance policies that will be supported under the Affordable Care Act. In its interim rules in August, HHS excluded from this requirement only those "religious employers" who primarily serve and employ members of their own faith traditions. This exempted churches from the rule, but not Catholic universities or social-service agencies and hospitals that help tens of thousands of non-Catholics.
As a general matter, it made perfect sense to cover contraception. Many see doing so as protecting women's rights, and expanded contraception coverage will likely reduce the number of abortions. While the Catholic Church formally opposes contraception, this teaching is widely ignored by the faithful. One does not see many Catholic families of six or ten or twelve that were quite common in the 1950s. Contraception might have something to do with this.
Speaking as a Catholic, I wish the church would be more open on the contraception question. But speaking as an American liberal who believes that religious pluralism imposes certain obligations on government, I think the church's leaders had a right to ask for broader relief from a contraception mandate that would require it to act against its own teachings. The administration should have done more to balance the competing liberty interests here.
And it was offered a compromise idea to do just that by Melissa Rogers, the former chair of Obama's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. (Rogers and I have worked together on religion and public life issues over the years, though I played no role in formulating her proposal.) In The Washington Post's "On Faith" forum in October, she pointed to a Hawaii law under which "religious employers that decline to cover contraceptives must provide written notification to enrollees disclosing that fact and describing alternate ways for enrollees to access coverage for contraceptive services." The Hawaii law effectively required insurers to allow uncovered individuals to secure this coverage on their own at modest cost.
Unfortunately, the administration decided it lacked authority to implement a Hawaii-style solution. The Obama team should not have given up so easily, especially after it floated a version of this compromise with some Catholic service providers who thought it workable. Obama would do well to revisit his decision on the Hawaii compromise.
"The tensions and the suspicions on each side of the religious divide will have to be squarely addressed," Obama said back in 2006. "And each side will need to accept some ground rules for collaboration." I wish the president had tried harder to find such rules here.
(c) 2012, Washington Post Writers Group
Related: An Illiberal Mandate, by the Editors
About the Author
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).