Contraception and “Religious Liberty”

It’s been underway for a good while now. But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ offensive to label federal requirements that religiously affiliated non-church institutions offer coverage for contraceptive services in employee health plans as an assault on “religious liberty” gained steam yesterday as many priests around the country were required by their superiors to read statements from the pulpit on the subject.

The Bishops’ specific complaint is that the “conscience” exception whereby churches are permitted to waive coverage of contraception for their employees has not been expanded to include affiliated institutions such as charities, hospitals and colleges. As Sarah Kliff explains at Wonkblog, states have adopted a range of “conscience” exceptions, mostly a bit more expansive than the current federal rule, but none as expansive as the Bishops would prefer.

Many reproductive rights advocates have favored no exception at all, and there may be some merit to E.J. Dionne’s argument today that the administration has placed Catholic progressives on a bit of a slippery slope by trying to thread the needle with a relatively narrow exception.

But step back from the specific dispute for a moment, and if nothing else, it should be clear that given the vast opposition of U.S. Catholics to the Church’s teachings on contraception and (to a lesser extent) abortion, the Bishops do not exactly come to the table with clean hands when it comes to its demands for “religious liberty.” Maybe they should choose another term.

UPDATE: Speaking of clean hands, Mit Romney’s campaign blasted the administration’s policy on the scope of the “conscience” exception for coverage of contraceptive services, even though Romney himself endorsed a virtually identical policy as governor of Massachusetts.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.