Via Weekly Standard:
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has taken a bold stand for religious freedom. In a recent statement, titled “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” the bishops call for repeal of contraception coverage mandated by the Department of Health and Human Services. The clarified position sets up a dramatic confrontation with the Obama administration — and would, if the bishops prevail, help preserve the religious liberty of all Americans.
The HHS mandate requires employers to provide insurance coverage for contraception and sterilization services. It is, according to the bishops, an “unjust law.” They write: “It cannot be obeyed and therefore one does not seek relief from it, but rather its repeal.”
The statement is a rebuke of President Obama and the so-called accommodation his administration proposed in February. It also raises the stakes between the president and the leaders of America’s Catholic Church.
The bishops call on Catholics in America, “in solidarity with our fellow citizens,” not to obey the law. They implicitly compare the HHS regulation to a segregation-era statute, and even cite Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In a not-so-subtle manner, the bishops tell the Obama administration that they are willing to go to prison rather than comply with the mandate’s provisions.
In doing so, the bishops are ruling out the possibility of a compromise that might preserve the mandate by expanding possible conscience exemptions from it. Most discussion had been over how far the religious liberty exemption should extend — but with the bishops calling for repeal, that all could change.
The Obama administration was not against an exemption per se, it just wanted a narrow one that only covered church employees serving members of their own faith with jobs pertaining to the inculcation of religious belief. The Catholic bishops, it seemed, wanted a more robust exemption that covered institutions of faith, including hospitals, universities, and other social service providers.
Now the bishops have made clear that the contraception mandate must be rescinded, because, in their view, even a more expansive exemption cannot sufficiently protect religious freedom.