On Monday, the Catholic Church offered a formal response to the Obama administration's refusal to extend the religious exemption to the Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate on contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients to Catholic hospitals, charities, and schools. In a coordinated move, 43 Catholic institutions — including several dioceses — filed lawsuits in federal courts over the alleged infringement of freedom in religious practice that the mandate imposes on its organizations. The lawsuits serve notice on Barack Obama that he can expect the Catholic Church to fight him throughout the summer and all the way to the November election.
The lawsuits could not have come at a worse time for Obama and his campaign. Until recently, Catholic bishops had held out some hope of persuading the White House and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to expand the exemption in the mandate that covers only churches. A negotiated restatement of the mandate to cover all organizations run on behalf of churches would have sidelined the issue and put the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops back on the sidelines, nominally opposed to ObamaCare but in favor of government-run universal health care in general. Instead, Obama has yet another ally-turned-opponent, just as the general election fight heats up.
This fight could not have come at a worse time for Obama and his campaign.
This exemption is the crux of the fight for the mandate's opponents, as it offers a breathtakingly arrogant position that claims authority to define religious expression. According to the administration, the First Amendment protection against laws that "prohibit the free exercise" of religion only applies to churches themselves, not the affiliated or subordinate organizations that provide services to their communities. That distinction rewrites more than two centuries of American law and would force churches to violate their doctrine in matters that government defines as public policy.
This case involves forcing Catholic organizations to provide free access to birth control, but if this mandate stands as precedent, it might not stop there. The president of one organization that filed a lawsuit made clear the stakes involved for religious liberty in a statement accompanying the news release of the court actions: "For if we concede that the government can decide which religious organizations are sufficiently religious to be awarded the freedom to follow the principles that define their mission, then we have begun to walk down a path that ultimately leads to the undermining of those institutions. For if one presidential administration can override our religious purpose and use religious organizations to advance policies that undercut our values, then surely another administration will do the same for another very different set of policies, each time invoking some concept of popular will or the public good, with the result these religious organizations become mere tools for the exercise of government power, morally subservient to the state, and not free from its infringements."
The identity of this declaration's author points out the extent of the political danger in which President Obama finds himself. That statement did not come from an ultraconservative Catholic institution or cleric, but from a man who extended a personal invitation to Obama — and received considerable criticism from his fellow Catholics for having done so. Father John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame asked President Obama to speak at the university's commencement ceremonies in 2009, a controversial move at the time due to Obama's support for abortion and Planned Parenthood. Notre Dame is seen within the Catholic Church as a politically liberal institution, and perhaps particularly so under Jenkins' governance. Notre Dame's inclusion in this first wave of lawsuits sends a clear signal from the bishops that it has united Catholics across the political spectrum against this infringement of religious liberty.
And the unity goes beyond the Catholic Church. The Family Research Council, a group that tends to speak mostly for evangelical churches, announced its support for the legal assault on the HHS mandate within a few hours. FRC President Tony Perkins cheered Cardinals Timothy Dolan and Donald Wuerl "for championing this most fundamental freedom in court." Perkins has been a frequent critic of the Obama administration, and the FRC is deeply conservative, so their unity with Catholics on this point isn't exactly a surprise. But what should worry Obama is that his actions have pushed Catholics into the arms of Perkins and the FRC just a few short months before the presidential election, and that the lawsuits and those that follow will further solidify that alliance.
Catholics, unlike their evangelical Christian brothers and sisters, are normally not a monolithic voting bloc. Catholics accounted for 29 percent of the vote in 2008, according to CNN's exit polls, and Obama won a nine-point victory in that bloc, 54 to 45. This demographic includes a significant number of Hispanic voters, a group Obama hoped to win by promising yet again to pursue immigration reform, having failed to deliver even a coherent proposal for it while Democrats held overwhelming majorities in Congress in 2009 and 2010.
Instead, parishioners attending church every week will hear constant updates on the lawsuits and their status. They will hear appeals from the bishops asking Catholics to pressure the White House into retreating on the mandate. Homilies from the pulpit are likely to echo arguments such as this from Cardinal Wuerl, noting that Mother Teresa's charitable AIDS hospice in Washington, D.C. wouldn't qualify as a religious organization in Obama's mandate. How many priests will ask from the pulpit for their congregations to consider the absurdity of government regulations that would have forced Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity to provide free sterilizations and abortifacients? I would bet the number will be more than just a few.
Obama and his team could have avoided all of this simply by allowing the exemption to apply to all religious organizations and not just the churches themselves. Now, however, it's probably too late; the damage to their relationship with the bishops has been done, and a retreat now would make Obama look considerably weaker. Instead, they will have to fight the bishops and the heretofore sympathetic Catholic organizations in court all the way past the general election, while trying to convince the parishioners that Obama is, to quote an old joke, more Catholic than the Pope.