Contraception Provision Sets Off Firestorm

The Obama administration reaffirmed its position that certain religious institutions have to provide health coverage that offers free contraception. U.S. Catholic bishops are vowing to fight this rule in Congress, in courts, and in churches. Host Michel Martin speaks with Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

You might remember that we were in Detroit earlier this week for a special broadcast from member station WDET. Later in our BackTalk segment, we will give you the latest information on some of the stories we covered there, including the looming state takeover of the city if officials can't get the city's finances under control. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. And if you've been following the GOP primaries so far, then you might have heard a number of Republican presidential contenders talk about what they call the Obama administration's war on religion.

Part of this criticism stems from a provision in the new health-care law that requires employer-sponsored health care plans to offer contraceptives free of charge and sterilization services, with a few exceptions.

The administration recently reaffirmed a position that means that for the most part, religious universities, hospitals and charities that serve the general public would be expected to comply. The rule has sparked outrage among a number of conservative religious groups, with several Catholic bishops calling on their parishioners to refuse to comply with the law.

This is Bishop David Zubik, leader of the Archdiocese of Pittsburgh, speaking to NPR.

DAVID ZUBIK: We can't comply and we won't comply. There's no way we can. It's a matter of conscience.

MARTIN: We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called upon Laurie Goodstein. She is a national religion correspondent for the New York Times and she's with us now. Thank you so much for joining us.

LAURIE GOODSTEIN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Could you just talk a little bit more about what the administration's position is on this?

GOODSTEIN: Well, the administration says that it's been trying to strike a balance between preventive health care services, offering that to everybody, and covering contraception is a big part of that. They say it's a big piece of preventive care. It reduces unwanted pregnancies. It saves money in the long run and they've also pointed out that it actually might reduce the incidence of abortion.

So, they say they're trying to balance that with the needs of religious organizations. And the White House has gone out of its way to say, individual churches are not going to be affected by this. If an individual church does not believe in contraception and does not want to offer its employees contraceptive coverage in its insurance plan, it does not have to.

It also does not affect an individual. Say, a Catholic doctor who doesn't want to prescribe birth control. He's not going to be forced to prescribe birth control under this plan. It's for larger institutions that employ a diverse, you know, group of people or serve a diverse group of people.

MARTIN: Now, as we said, a number of religious leaders from different backgrounds have called this an attack on religious freedom. But at the National Prayer Breakfast yesterday, without mentioning this topic specifically, President Obama said his policies are, in fact, guided by his faith. And I'll just play a short clip of his remarks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our goals should not be to declare our policies as biblical. It is God who is infallible, not us. Michelle reminds me of this often. So, instead, it is our hope that people of goodwill can pursue their values and common ground and the common good as best they know how with respect for each other.

MARTIN: But, Laurie, as we said, a number of groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have issued some very strongly worded statements, calling this an attack on religious freedom and literally unconscionable. Why do they feel so strongly about this?

GOODSTEIN: Well, the Catholic bishops see this as the government forcing the church to violate their own conscience by having to pay for contraception. So, the bishops, as a group, have been very outspoken on this, with some of them even to the point of saying that the president is saying, to hell with you.

They are on the forefront of this, but they're not the only religious group that is making an issue of it. Also, the National Association of Evangelicals has issued a statement. But there are many, many other religious groups that do support contraception and have pretty much stayed on the sidelines and stayed quiet because, implicitly, they support the president's position.

MARTIN: We're speaking with the New York Times religion correspondent, Laurie Goodstein. We're talking about a controversy between the Obama administration and some religious leaders, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, over a provision in the new health care law, which would require employer-sponsored health care plans to cover contraceptives and sterilization services. A number of conservative religious groups are saying that they simply can not abide with this and they are very angry, calling it an attack on religion.

There were hints earlier that the administration might soften on this, that that was the initial rule that was proposed. Does that square with your reporting or was that just wishful thinking?

GOODSTEIN: Well, I think part of the reason the bishops are so outraged is that they feel that they were given a signal by the administration and directly by President Obama. Archbishop Dolan met with President Obama. They talked about the work that the Catholic Church does, that the Catholic Church is not just parishes, but is also hospitals, is universities, charities and that all these institutions have a right to express their religious freedom and religious conscience.

So, Archbishop Dolan thought that he had gotten through to President Obama and thought he had a signal that this decision would go their way. So, when it didn't, they felt greatly betrayed by the president.

MARTIN: Is there any talk of a compromise on this question, since the lines seem to be drawn rather firmly and heatedly on both sides at this point?

GOODSTEIN: Well, the compromise was that they gave these organizations a year to comply. So, it doesn't really go into effect until August 2013 and they said that was to give these organizations that haven't previously provided this kind of insurance coverage time to transition. But that's as far as they've gone with a compromise. They are not saying that they were going back off from this.

Now, there are efforts on Capitol Hill to pass legislation that will force the administration to back off. But I will tell you that John Boehner was going around saying that this is unconstitutional. Now, what that doesn't square with is that, up until now, 28 states already had laws that required organizations, even religious organizations, to cover contraception in their insurance plans. So, for 28 states, this is not a change and there wasn't a big human cry about this before.

MARTIN: Here is a question I have and I'm interested in your take on this. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has expressed itself very strongly on this point. But I'm wondering if, in your reporting - do you find that Catholic laypeople share their point of view on this?

GOODSTEIN: Well, laypeople do get worked up if they are told that their religious liberty is being violated and that the government is trying to infringe on the rights of Catholics and the Catholic Church. But they might not get as worked up if they were clear that the whole issue is about contraception.

Studies show that something like 98 percent of Catholic women have used contraception. There is no single Catholic voting block, and the bishops certainly don't command all Catholics and lead them in the direction that they're going to vote. The Catholic electorate is just as split as the general electorate.

Now, there's a divide in the Catholic Church between the liberal, kind of social justice, Vatican II Catholics and the more conservative Catholics who are also, by and large, those who attend church more faithfully. The bishops, though, in recent years, have become more politically conservative. And so, rather than emphasizing issues that the bishops used to emphasize - say, economic injustice or war - they have moved to put in the forefront more these sexuality issues, like homosexuality, abortion and contraception. And that's what we're seeing here.

MARTIN: Laurie Goodstein is the national religion correspondent for the New York Times and she was kind enough to join us from their studios there. Laurie Goodstein, thank you so much for speaking with us.

GOODSTEIN: Thanks for having me.

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