Bishops Were Prepared for Battle Over Birth Control Coverage

When after much internal debate the Obama administration finally announced its decision to require religiously affiliated hospitals and universities to cover bith control in their insurance plans, the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops were fully prepared for battle.

Seven months earlier, they had started laying the groundwork for a major new campaign to combat what they saw as the growing threat to religious liberty, including the legalization of same-sex marriage. But the birth control mandate, issued on Jan. 20, was their Pearl Harbor.

Hours after President Obama phoned to share his decision with Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, who is president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the bishops’ headquarters in Washington posted on its Web site a video of Archbishop Dolan, which had been recorded the day before.

“Never before,” Archbishop Dolan said, setting the tone, “has the federal government forced individuals and organizations to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience. This shouldn’t happen in a land where free exercise of religion ranks first in the Bill of Rights.”

The speed and passion behind the bishops’ response reflects their growing sense of siege, and their belief that the space the Catholic church once occupied in American society and the deference it was given are gradually being curtailed by an increasingly secular culture.

The conflict puts not just the White House, but also the bishops to the test. Will their flock follow their lead? And are they sufficiently powerful, now that they have joined forces with evangelicals and other religious conservatives, to outmuscle the women’s groups, public health advocates and liberal religious leaders who argue that the real issue is contraceptive coverage for all women, and that the Obama administration was right?

On the day of the decision, bishops across the country posted similarly dire statements on their Web sites, and at Mass on the following Sundays, priests read the bishops’ letters from their pulpits and wove the religious freedom theme into their homilies. By the bishops’ own count, 147 bishops in the nation’s 195 dioceses have now issued personal letters on religious freedom, which are trickling down to Catholics through their local parish bulletins and diocesan newspapers.

Some bishops called on Catholics to lobby their legislators to overturn the mandate, while a few have called for resistance. Archbishop Timothy Broglio, who oversees Catholic military chaplains, instructed them to read a pastoral letter at Mass that said, “We cannot — and will not — comply with this unjust law.” Army officials ordered him to strike that line because it could be interpreted as a call for civil disobedience.

“I have never seen the bishops mobilize so quickly,” said Stephen S. Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America, in Washington. “I remember Roe v. Wade, and it took years for them to respond to that, in terms of an organized response.”

“The bishops really are convinced that this is a direct abridgement of their First Amendment religion rights,” Mr. Schneck said. “From their perspective, this really isn’t about contraception.”

The ruling issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, said that only religious organizations that primarily employ and serve their co-religionists would be exempt from the requirement to provide insurance that covers birth control. Churches are therefore exempt, but Catholic hospitals, service agencies and colleges are not. The White House said that 28 states already had such mandates, so this federal rule, which is part of the health care overhaul, just applies the mandate uniformly.

The backlash has prompted the White House to say it is searching for solutions, but neither side appears to have moved toward compromise. A White House spokesman reiterated that the decision allows the Catholic institutions until August 2013 to figure out how they can put the policy into effect.

Administration officials are also waiting to assess how much political damage the decision will cause. The Republican presidential candidates are already wielding religious liberty as a wedge issue. While Catholics do not vote as a bloc, they are part of the swing vote in states like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The bishops have found allies among conservative evangelicals, who do not share the Catholic Church’s doctrinal prohibition on contraception but are delighted to see the bishops adopt the right’s longstanding grievance that government has declared a war on religion. They have been joined by the bishops of Eastern Orthodox churches (like Greek, Russian and Ukrainian) and two Orthodox Jewish groups — small constituencies but ones that lend the cause a touch of diversity.

On the other side are religious Americans and clergy members who are unmoved by the religious liberty theme, and who regard the administration’s ruling as sensible health care policy.

The public policy arm of the United Methodist Church, which like the Catholic Church, runs hospitals and universities across the country, has applauded the mandate to cover contraception. And a coalition of mainline Protestants, Muslims and Reform and Conservative Jews released a declaration on Wednesday supporting the ruling.

The Rev. Debra W. Haffner, executive director of the Religious Institute, a liberal interfaith group that works on sexuality issues and that wrote the declaration, said, “The mainstream religious voice has supported contraception for decades, at least for the last 40 years.”

But many other religious denominations, including white and black Protestant churches, are so far sitting on the sidelines.

The main question is whether this is truly a galvanizing issue for rank-and-file Catholics. If they conclude that the real issue is birth control, the bishops may lose. Humanae Vitae, the papal encyclical issued in 1968 that prohibited artificial contraception because every act of intercourse should be open to procreation, never really took hold in the United States. Some Catholic theologians still argue that it is bad doctrine.

Studies have shown that 98 percent of Catholic women have used artificial contraception at some time in their lives. A poll released on Tuesday by the Public Religion Research Institute in Washington found that 52 percent of Catholic respondents agreed that even religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals should have to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception. (Among Catholic voters, however, 52 percent disagreed and only 45 percent agreed).

But Catholics may be persuaded by the argument that the mandate is a violation of religious liberty. One indication is that several prominent Catholic Democrats who supported Mr. Obama in 2008, supported the health care overhaul and defended the president at many junctures, have broken with him on the birth control mandate.

Michael Sean Winters, a writer for National Catholic Reporter, a liberal independent weekly, said: “I think they misjudged that no matter what people think about contraception, that’s an internal Catholic debate. Catholics do not like interlopers.”

Douglas W. Kmiec, who served as ambassador to Malta under Mr. Obama and is now a professor of constitutional law at Pepperdine University, said he was disappointed that such a divisive course was chosen by a president who urged respect for others’ religious traditions.

“For people attracted to him for those reasons, who applaud the very passage of the health care law, we are just sort of baffled by this,” Mr. Kmiec said. “Especially when the train wreck was foreseen, and we kept saying, ‘Not this track, not this track.’ And here came the train and ran us all over.”

This article, “Bishops Were Prepared for Battle Over Birth Control Coverage,” originally appeared in The New York Times.