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The Obama administration has drawn fierce criticism over a new rule requiring religiously affiliated charities, universities and hospitals to provide contraceptive coverage in their insurance plans. Now, that mandate has created a stalemate between American Catholic bishops and the White House that shows few signs of easing.
Richard Doerflinger is the point man on life issues for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He has been on Capitol Hill pushing for legislation that would undo the new mandate, which he says is an affront to religious liberties. "This is really the first time that an administration has reached into the life of religious organizations and said, 'We're going to dragoon you into this; you have to help do this and it doesn't matter what your objections are,' " Doerflinger says.
The White House says it's just trying to provide critical medical services to women. But it has been stunned by the backlash, and one senior campaign official says the administration is looking for "a way to move forward" that respects the prerogatives of religious institutions. Some outside the White House are pointing to a law in Hawaii as a possible solution. There, Catholic groups don't have to pay for birth control coverage but they must tell women how they can get it. Doerflinger isn't impressed by that option.
"Instead of having the Catholic Church or its institutions just provide the coverage, you have them sending people directly to Planned Parenthood down the road," he says. "That's not something we find acceptable."
The Rev. Tom Reese of Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center says there's no reason for bishops to settle — they're are winning the public relations battle right now.
"They're getting support from progressive Catholics and conservative Catholics," Reese says, "so the bishops are on a roll."
According to Reese, they're under no pressure to compromise, particularly since they have a year before the rule takes effect. And, who knows, by then there might be a new president.
Polls show most people, including Catholics, want access to birth control and favor the administration's mandate. But Reese says they also bristle at government pushing a religious entity to violate its beliefs.
"If the argument is over religious liberty," he says, "the bishops win. If the argument is over contraceptives, the administration wins."
According to Reese, right now the bishops are doing a better job.
Lost in this debate is the fact that state laws already have many Catholic institutions offering birth control coverage, including Georgetown University, University of Dayton, University of San Diego, Catholic Charities in New Jersey and virtually all Catholic hospitals in New York and California.
"It doesn't sound like the sky has fallen in to me," says Judy Waxman, vice president of the National Women's Law Center.
Sister Carol Keehan is president of the Catholic Health Association, which oversees more than 600 Catholic hospitals. She says no one is turning patients away, and in fact the vast majority of Catholic women use birth control and want coverage. But the federal mandate violates a larger principle.
"It is not the issue per se of contraception," Keehan says. "It is the issue of the government saying you have to buy this or you have to buy that, even if you have a long-standing religious objection to it."
Keehan believes that in an effort to provide a valuable service to women, the administration just lost sight of the First Amendment.
"We think this was just a bad call," she says. "It needs to be fixed and that's what we're working in dialogue to get accomplished."
But Doerflinger at the Conference of Catholic Bishops isn't so sure. He says the president led them to believe he would accommodate them. "And then when the rule came out, he had not," Doerflinger says. "So we're beginning to realize that those conversations have been of very limited use."
Whatever was said in the Oval Office, one thing is clear: The bishops are in no mood to compromise.