WASHINGTON — During a nearly five-hour congressional hearing Feb. 16, religious leaders explained how the contraceptive mandate in the U.S. health reform plan is an affront to their religious liberty rights.
Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., chairman of the bishops' Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, and two Catholic college presidents were among 10 panelists who addressed the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Panel members included an Orthodox rabbi, a Baptist minister, the president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and officials from Christian universities.
The hearing took place nearly a week after President Barack Obama revised a federal contraceptive mandate, saying religious employers could decline to cover contraceptives and sterilization if they were morally opposed to them, but the health insurers that provide their health plans would be required to offer contraceptives free of charge to women who requested such coverage.
The revision came after three weeks of intensive criticism that Department of Health and Human Services' contraception mandate would require most religious institutions to pay for coverage they find morally objectionable, despite a limited religious exemption.
The religious leaders at the hearing said the change still violated their religious freedoms because it involved the government requiring their participation, even indirectly, in practices they disagreed with on moral grounds.
Democrats at the hearing were highly critical of the lack of female panelists and two of them walked out after expressing concern that women were not able to discuss the importance of free access to contraception. There were no women on the first panel and two on the second. None of the witnesses spoke in favor of the contraceptive mandate in the health reform law.
U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., committee chairman, reminded lawmakers that the hearing was not about contraception but about the law's impact on freedom of religion and conscience. The hearing was titled: "Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?"
He also pointed out that the Democratic members' request for the female witness —a Georgetown University law student — had been submitted too late to be considered and was "not an appropriate witness." The committee accepted the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, as a panelist. Although he did not speak on the panel, he submitted his testimony for the record.
Testimony the law student, Sandra Fluke, would have given was read at the end of the hearing by Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa. In it, she described how a fellow student suffered severe health issues which she said could have been prevented if the university had given her access to the birth control pill.
Braley said her remarks, submitted for the record, reveal "the complexity of this issue."
But throughout the at-times-contentious hearing religious leaders spoke at length about the complexity of the issue particularly when lawmakers grilled panelists on the law's impact on their faith traditions.
Bishop Lori compared the contraceptive mandate to a law that would force all food providers, including kosher delicatessens, to serve pork.
The bishop asked if it would be permissible for the government to weigh in on one side of this hypothetical dispute.
He was asked more than once if the Catholic Church, which is morally opposed to artificial birth control, would ever consider the use of contraceptives for health reasons.
"Catholic moral theology is very nuanced" in its ability to see how the same drug can be used for different things, he said. "We operate with lot more nuance than we're usually given credit for."
The bulk of the discussion was religious leaders being asked by Republican lawmakers if they would comply with the new law and violate their consciences or refuse to comply with the mandate and pay steep fines or even close some of their ministries.
"We will not violate our consciences," said Bishop Lori, who noted that the issue is about "forcing the church" to provide contraceptives against church teachings. "That's what we don't want to do. It's one thing when tax dollars pay for it. It's another when church dollars do."
John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America, said there would be a fine of almost $2,000 per employee per year if the university doesn't provide health insurance. "We're not an institution rich enough to afford that penalty, so I'm trying to not look that far down the road," he said.
"We will not violate our faith," said William Thierfelder, president of Belmont Abbey College, a small Catholic liberal arts college in Belmont, N.C. The college has filed a civil lawsuit against the federal government on the grounds the contraception mandate is contrary to its beliefs.
Thierfelder told lawmakers that he hoped the school would "never come to the extreme of having to pay a huge fine or closing."
"I'm confident we won't come to that," he said, adding that the congressional hearing could prompt further discussion on the issue along with the realization that "we need to do something about this."
Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., acknowledged the strong feelings about the issue and accused both sides of distorting the facts.
"I'm disappointed in some who suggest that the Catholic bishops' stance represents something sinister, that it is an attempt to deny all women, of any faith, access to any contraception or reproductive health care of any kind. I don't think that's the case," he said.
"I'm also disappointed in those who claim that the administration has an agenda: to increase abortions, sterilizations and contraceptive use by Catholics. The facts don't back that up, not in the slightest," he added.
The day before the hearing a group of Catholic leaders held a telephone press conference described as a "pre-buttal" to the congressional hearing.
Some speakers said they opposed the original federal health mandate but felt its revised form was an acceptable compromise.
Mercy Sister Anne Curtis, a member of the Institute Leadership Team of the Sister of Mercy of the Americas, said she felt there was "a lot of good will in the effort to resolve this" and hopes dialogue about it will continue so that ultimately good health care can be provided for those "most vulnerable and fragile in our society."
Nicholas Cafardi, a law professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, said the bishops had "prevailed" with the mandate being revised.
Cafardi also said he believes "everything my church teaches," but doesn't see the mandate as "a question of dogma," but rather as an "issue of how we apply dogma in the real world."
At the hearing, the Rev. Matthew Harrison, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, said he would rather go to jail than comply with the revised mandate, which he said still requires religious institutions to pay indirectly for services that violate their religious beliefs.
"I will give up my sons to fight" for these liberties, he said. "I will give up every single thing I have."