Perched on a dais with two other panelists in a windowless meeting room in a Washington, D.C. hotel, the top lobbyist for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) conceded that the prelates just couldn’t muster the number of votes in the U.S. Senate to pass a law that would allow employers to ban birth-control coverage in the insurance plans they offer their employees.
“That’s why, over the last year and a half, the efforts of the Bishops’ Conference have been trying to say that this kind of protection needs to be attached to must-pass legislation,” said Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the USCCB’s Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities in a panel discussion at a the religious-right gathering known as the Values Voter Summit. “That’s the only way to get the Senate to deal with it,” he said.
In their September 26 letter to members of Congress, RH Reality Check reported, Cardinal Séan O’Malley and Archbishop William Lori asked that the language of the proposed Health Care Conscience Rights Act (H.R. 940, S. 1204) be added to either the continuing resolution (CR) legislation needed to fund the operation of the federal government, or to the legislation needed to prevent the United States from defaulting on its debt.
Opposition to the birth control benefit has been framed by the bishops and their allies as an infringement of their religious liberty, turning the definition of the term on its head by claiming a right to impose their theological views on those who believe differently. The religious liberty theme—and the claim that President Barack Obama aims to revoke it—is one that pervaded the annual conference, which took place at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, a sprawling Washington landmark.
Making the Most of the Moment
Absent from the podium this year at the right-wing confab was Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), who delivered a message by video, including an apology for not having made it to the gathering, which has become a regular, annual appearance for him.
“I’m sorry I can’t join you in person,” Ryan said in the video. “Things are a little busy up here on Capitol Hill these days. My colleagues and I, well, we’re working to get a budget agreement. It’s been slow going, but I want to make the most of this moment.”
Across town, at the U.S. Capitol, Ryan, who chairs the House Budget Committee, was making the most of the moment by rallying his troops in the House to do the bishops’ bidding.
Earlier in the day, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), presented a plan for a compromise deal (later rejected by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid) that would have funded the government through March, ending the current partial government shutdown, and delayed until January the showdown on the debt ceiling—which needs to be raised by October 17, according to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, in order to avert a financial crisis. Ryan, the Washington Post reported, was having none of it. One big reason: birth control. Specifically, the contraception benefit in the Affordable Care Act (ACA), to which the bishops object.
In a closed-door meeting with his fellow House Republicans, Ryan reportedly “riled” up his colleagues with a speech opposing the Collins compromise, finding no benefit in the extension of deadlines to alleviate the current crisis. As the Post’s Paul Kane and Lori Montgomery wrote:
According to two Republicans familiar with the exchange, Ryan argued that the House would need those deadlines as “leverage” for delaying the health-care law’s individual mandate and adding a “conscience clause”—allowing employers and insurers to opt out of birth-control coverage if they find it objectionable on moral or religious grounds—and mentioned tax and entitlement goals Ryan had focused on in a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.
(Ryan’s Wall Street Journal op-ed, which also proposes means-testing for Medicare, among other things, is here.)
Since late September, the Republican-controlled House has passed a number of versions of the CR (H.J. 59), all with some measure attached designed to be unpalatable to lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled Senate. The first one, passed by the House on September 20, included a measure to strip funding for implementation of the ACA, which is also known as Obamacare. Predictably, the Senate stripped the anti-Obamacare language and sent the CR back to the House, which passed it again, this time with the defunding provision removed, and, in its place, measures that would have delayed the opening of the ACA’s insurance exchanges for a year, as well as the implementation of the contraception benefit, which requires nearly all insurance plans to cover prescription contraception without a deductible or co-pay.
Again, the Senate stripped out the language on the health-care law, and sent the bill back to the House for reconsideration. By then, Congress was up against the deadline for passing the CR needed to fund the government, forcing the partial shutdown. Absent from subsequent CRs passed by the House and rejected by the Senate, which included measures to reopen popular aspects of the government (such as parks, or nutritional assistance programs), was any further attempt to force the Senate to exempt employers from the requirement for contraception coverage.
But it appears that Ryan is gearing up to ride to the bishops’ rescue in their quest to keep women from having sex void of life-changing consequences.
Bishops Join With Obama-Haters and Gay-Bashers
The Values Voter Summit is sponsored by FRC Action, the political arm of the Family Research Council, which has been classified as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its vitriol against LGBTQ people. That the bishops would send their man to such a virulently right-wing gathering—in which Obamacare was denounced as “the worst thing in this nation since slavery,” where state of America today was equated with that of Nazi Germany, where the president was denounced as a tyrant—speaks to their desperation to find allies for their cause. Catholic women, for example, use birth control at the same rates as those of other denominations, and 82 percent of all Catholics say that the use of contraception is morally acceptable, according to Gallup.
That’s likely why the bishops insist on falsely describing some of the prescription contraception methods covered by the preventive care regulations issued by the Department of Health and Human Services under the ACA as “abortifacients.” Public opinion is far more divided on abortion than on birth control.
The panel on which Doerflinger appeared—a breakout session titled “Values and Obamacare: The Threat to Religious Freedom, Life & the Family”—also featured Anna Franzonello of Americans United for Life and Casey Mattox of the Alliance Defending Freedom, both of whom are attorneys working on cases challenging the birth control provision, often referred to as the HHS contraception mandate. Doerflinger’s purpose appeared to be to urge the largely evangelical Protestant audience to lobby their senators and congressional representatives to support a right for employers to deny contraceptive coverage to their workers.
When an audience member, during the question-and-answer period, suggested that Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, take a greater public role in opposing the birth control provision, Doerflinger replied that there’s nothing the media, which he said sided with the president, liked better than seeing a bishop in a mitre trying to make the case against the birth control benefit, when the other side is represented by “an articulate woman” such as Kathleen Sebelius, the Health and Human Services secretary.
The spokespeople really needed by those standing in opposition to the HHS mandate, Doerflinger said, were women. He made note of a group called Women Speak for Themselves, which took up the bishops’ provision, and gave a shout-out to Rep. Diane Black (R-TN) for her sponsorship of the Health Care Conscience Rights Act in the House.
Obama “the Enemy of Our Freedom”
At a later breakout session, “Where Do We Go From Here? A Challenge to Tyranny,” Terry Jeffrey, editor in chief of CNS News, an arm of the right-wing Media Research Center, suggested that stronger medicine was needed than that which Doerflinger called for.
“It’s a pretty powerful word, tyranny—but I think it’s an accurate one,” Jeffrey said as he opened his remarks. After establishing his Catholic bona fides by citing his Jesuit education, Jeffrey said his expectations were low for the outcome of the court cases filed by private employers such as Hobby Lobby, a crafts store chain, and church-affiliated institutions such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, because he expected even rulings favorable to the plaintiffs to be narrow. He had even less hope for a congressional remedy, he said, despite the fact that House Speaker John Boehner is Catholic, and noting how quickly the House Republicans had abandoned the conscience measure they attached to the second version of the CR. “They held on to that position for, like, I don’t know, 30 hours,” he said, ruefully.
No, Jeffrey said, the only way to win against what he called “this unjust law” was to take a page out of Martin Luther King Jr.’s book and embark on a campaign of massive civil disobedience. He noted that King’s famous Letter From a Birmingham Jail framed the justification for his outlawed courthouse protest in the teachings of two Catholic saints: Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.
“Because our legislatures won’t protect us, because our courts won’t protect us, and because we have a president who is the enemy of our freedom … we are going to have to stand and resist the way people did in the ‘50s and ‘60s against immoral segregation laws,” Jeffrey said. “We are going to have to engage in organized … and peaceful disobedience because of an unjust law that is a huge step towards tyranny in the United States of America.”