Bishops To Over-reach?

There are a fair number of mixed signals coming from the White House on the contraceptive coverage mandate dispute. The President reportedly told a closed session of Senate Democrats that he had no intention of backing down from the mandate. But reports continue to proliferate of “uneasiness” in the White House (particularly among its Catholic men) and of interest in some sort of compromise.

But the Catholic bishops, who have squarely placed themselves at the head of the parade of people denouncing the mandate, in close alliance with Republican congressional leaders and presidential candidates, don’t seem particularly interested in a compromise, even if one becomes available. USA Today reports Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the Bishops, as saying nothing less than total repeal of the mandate, not just expansion of the “conscience clause” to include church-affiliated hospitals and charities, will suffice:

“There has been a lot of talk in the last couple days about compromise, but it sounds to us like a way to turn down the heat, to placate people without doing anything in particular,” Picarello said. “We’re not going to do anything until this is fixed.”

That means removing the provision from the health care law altogether, he said, not simply changing it for Catholic employers and their insurers. He cited the problem that would create for “good Catholic business people who can’t in good conscience cooperate with this.”

“If I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell, I’d be covered by the mandate,” Picarello said.

Now as it happens, the bill being sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio, which is widely being described as intended to “reverse” the administration’s decision for a relatively narrow “conscience clause,” appears to widen the clause to the point where it would deal with the “Taco Bell” issue, since it enables any individual employer citing religious objections to contraceptives coverage to evade the mandate.

But it’s entirely possible the Bishops have rejected half-measures and are determine to overturn the mandate for everybody. If so, as Alec MacGillis notes at TNR, the Bishops will be accepting the exact framing of the issue that defenders of the mandate prefer: it’s a matter of guaranteeing access to contraceptives, not a matter of “religious liberty.” Looks like an over-reach to me.

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.