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The Bishops Exposed: Wolves in Sheep's Clothing

Louise Melling,
Deputy Legal Director and Director of Ruth Bader Ginsburg Center for Liberty,
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February 13, 2012

The bishops’ true colors have at last been fully exposed. For weeks now, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the lobbying arm of the Catholic Church, has been decrying the requirement from the administration that new insurance plans cover birth control. Using every pulpit and pundit available, they have denounced the administration’s rule because, they say, it will force religiously affiliated institutions – like hospitals and universities — to pay to support insurance plans that cover a service the church views as a sin. (Houses of worship, it is important to remember, were exempt from the requirement.)

On Friday, the administration weighed in again, announcing that religiously affiliated institutions will not have to buy coverage that includes contraception. And, under the administration’s plan, these institutions won’t even have to tell their employees that there is insurance available. But – and this is a critical but – women at these institutions will get coverage. Insurance companies will be charged with reaching out and providing coverage, free of charge to the employees. In other words, women will in fact be able to get birth control coverage no matter where they work.

We at the ACLU have a lot to say about what has happened – and in particular how the original requirement did not violate the religious liberty of religiously affiliated institutions. But that’s not the story here. The story is the bishops’ response to the administration. You might expect them to be mollified. They seem to have gotten what they wanted: religiously affiliated institutions will not have to pay for the coverage – or even talk about it. Well, if that’s what you expected, you’d be wrong.

Here’s what the bishops said in their statement:

The only complete solution to this religious liberty problem is for HHS to rescind the mandate of these objectionable services.

That’s right. According to the bishops, religious liberty means that no insurer could be required to cover contraception. According to the bishops, religious liberty means that insurance would not cover the service that 98 percent of American women – including Catholic women – use. (Not to mention that if 98 percent of women are using birth control, a lot of men are implicated as well.)

“Religious liberty,” in effect, would mean that the bishops get to impose their views on the rest of us. That’s just not how the Constitution works.

In other words, as the bishops have made clear, the fight is not about religiously affiliated institutions. The fight is about birth control coverage in insurance, period – a basic health care service that we need to protect our health and plan our lives. These were the rights denied my mother’s generation. They will not be denied mine.

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