Congress this week plunged into fray over new Obama administration rules that will require religious employers to offer birth control in their health-insurance programs, even if contraception runs afoul of their religious doctrines.
The new rules, announced Jan. 20, set off protests from mainstream Roman Catholic organizations and social conservatives, and Democrats themselves are feuding over whether the president should back off. White House officials say they are continuing to look for a "win-win solution."
But for House Republicans, already embroiled in a bruising public-relations battle with the White House over jobs and budget deficits, the issue gave an unexpected new line of attack.
In a rare floor speech, Speaker John Boehner on Wednesday called the Obama administration’s new rules “an unambiguous attack on religious freedom in our country.”
The rules, he added, would require faith-based employers, including Catholic charities, schools, universities, and hospitals, to include in their employee health insurance certain services they deem to be immoral, such as sterilization, abortion-inducing drugs, and contraception.
“If the president does not reverse the [Health and Human Services] department’s attack on religious freedom, then the Congress, acting on behalf of the American people and the Constitution that we’re sworn to uphold and defend, must,” Mr. Boehner added.
The proposed rules do not require churches to give their direct employees medical insurance that includes access to contraception, but it does require church-affiliated hospitals or schools to adhere to the mandate. Backers of the new mandate describe it as a protection to women’s health, especially poor women who could not otherwise afford contraception.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee promises to expedite legislation to reverse the administration’s mandate and “restore longstanding conscience protections.”
“I plan to move quickly,” said Rep. Fred Upton (R) of Michigan, who chairs the panel, in a statement on Wednesday. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is scheduled to testify before the panel March 1.
Responding to GOP calls to reverse the rule, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday, “We want to work with all these organizations to implement this policy in a way that is as sensitive to their concerns as possible.
“But let’s be clear,” he added. “The president is committed to ensuring that women have access to contraception without paying any extra costs no matter where they work.”
In addition, there will be a transition period until August 2013 to work out issues of implementation.
In anticipation of a controversy over this rule, a panel subcommittee held a hearing Nov. 2 on whether the new health-care reform mandates “threaten conscience rights and access to care.”
For many Democrats, the White House decision to confront the Catholic church and others on a point of conscience in an election year is baffling. Many see the decision as a misstep that could cost Democrats seats in swing states in November.
In a letter to the president, Sen. Bob Casey (D) of Pennsylvania, who is up for reelection in November, called on Mr. Obama to reverse his decision. Religiously affiliated organizations such as hospitals and universities should not be required to purchase insurance policies that “violate their religious and moral conviction,” he wrote.
Some Democratic women are publicly backing the White House, saying the mandate will protect poor women. Catholic hospitals and charities receive government funds and tax benefits and are “woven into the fabric of our broader society,” wrote Sens. Barbara Boxer of California, Patty Murray of Washington, and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, in an op-ed in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal.
A narrow religious exemption from the requirement – but one that excludes Catholic-affiliated hospitals – will help millions of women “get the affordable care they need,” they added.
Cost is a barrier for African-American and Latina women to access family planning services, Dr. Mark Hathaway, director of obstetric/gynecological outreach services at Washington Hospital Center, testified before a House panel on Nov. 2.
“Any attempts to broaden exemptions to that coverage requirement would mean leaving in place insurmountable obstacles to contraceptive services for far too many women,” he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which defends the new mandate, says the rules do not violate religious beliefs. Clergy and church members can still practice their religion as they see fit, says Laura Murphy, director of the legislative office of the ACLU in Washington. "The fundamental promise of religious liberty in this country doesn’t create a right to impose those views on others,” including “denying critical health care,” said the ACLU in a statement on its website.
Meanwhile, GOP presidential contenders have also picked up the issue. Fresh off three surprise wins in caucuses Tuesday, Rick Santorum charged the president with rolling over the First Amendment and imposing “his secular values on the people of this country.”
“Freedom is at stake in this election,” Mr. Santorum said Tuesday, addressing supporters in St. Charles, Mo., after winning a nonbinding state primary.
Mitt Romney also criticized the policy, but the White House shot back. “This is ironic that Mitt Romney is … criticizing the president for pursuing a policy that’s virtually identical to the one that was in place when he was governor of Massachusetts,” said Mr. Carney at Wednesday’s White House briefing.