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Serving the People or the Bishops?

Sarah Lipton-Lubet,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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November 21, 2011

Over the last few weeks, the rumor mills have been churning, with everyone asking: just how much influence does the powerful U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ lobby have in Washington? A timeless question really, the version du jour is – what’s going to happen to important new federal guidelines that ensure insurance plans include coverage of contraception (also known as the latest target in the bishops’ campaign to force their beliefs on the rest of us)?

Before the Department of Health and Human Services even released the guidelines this August, detailing which essential preventive services new health insurance plans need to cover, the bishops and their friends were lobbying to keep contraception out. Because if the politically powerful bishops don’t like it, no one can have it. Now they’re waging a campaign to make Swiss cheese out of the guidelines by creating a loophole for all sorts of religiously affiliated organizations that would deny employees comprehensive insurance coverage that includes birth control. Is it working?

If you read the paper, and you’re among the 99 percent of sexually active women who have used contraception, you might start to worry. According to the Washington Post, “Obama [i]s ‘very sensitive’ to the bishops’ concerns” over the birth control guidelines. The New York Times reported that after his private meeting with the president, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the bishops’ conference, felt “a bit more at peace about this issue than when [he] entered.” Connecting the dots, Salon’s Irin Carmon asks whether the administration is going to “cave” to the bishops’ parochial demands.

We know that the bishops, as political actors, have outsized influence; politicians seem to listen to them on reproductive health even though most Catholics don’t. We know that the bishops are savvy with messaging, crying victim whenever someone disagrees with them over public policy (the rest of us call it democracy). And we know that the bishops are leaving no stone unturned.

But we also know that there’s simply no legitimate reason for the White House to create new loopholes that deny countless women birth control. Doing so would let institutions like hospitals, social service agencies, and universities use religion as a license to discriminate against nurses, social workers, teachers – the list goes on. As a nation, we protect religious beliefs, but we concluded some time ago that one person’s religion should not be used to trump another’s civil rights protections.

Allowing institutions to deny their employees contraceptive coverage is discrimination, not religious liberty. And what’s more, it’s not good sense. Contraception is tremendously important to women, and wildly popular. We need access to contraception to prevent unintended pregnancies, plan our lives, and protect our health. Making women’s health secondary to the bishops’ policy preferences serves no one – except the bishops.

Tell the White House to SAY NO to the bishops’ demands.

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