- - Wednesday, May 23, 2012

In January, the Obama administration hit Catholic employers with arguably the most religiously-oppressive government directive in modern American history: Provide free abortion drugs and birth control pills in your health insurance plans, in flagrant violation of your religious beliefs, or face legal punishment. This week the bishops of the Catholic Church hit back. In one of the largest legal actions to defend religious liberty in U.S. history, Catholic organizations filed a dozen lawsuits across the country claiming the Obama Health and Human Services Department rule violates the right to religious freedom set forth in the U.S. Constitution.

These historic lawsuits are certain to play in the upcoming presidential election, and not to President Obama’s favor. The plaintiffs include Notre Dame, Franciscan and Catholic University; the archdioceses of New York, Washington D.C. and St. Louis; dioceses in Texas, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Mississippi; Catholic Charities in various states; and even Catholic Cemeteries. In addition, since the mandate infringes on the conscience rights of Americans of all faiths, more than 2,500 religious leaders signed a letter earlier this year in opposition to the mandate and in solidarity with the Catholic Church.

It did not have to be this way. There is no good reason for the HHS mandate.

As 2012 dawned, America faced an unemployment crisis and an ongoing crisis in the housing market, but a contraception crisis? The idea is preposterous.

There have been no laws against contraception in the United States for decades. Supreme Court rulings have seen to that. There is a dizzying array of drugs and devices available, with new ones created all the time, that anyone can access without restraint. They are inexpensive. Some can be purchased without a prescription. Most employee insurance plans cover them.

Not only is contraception freely available, but Americans are availing themselves of it in record numbers. According to United Nations statistics, the United States has among the highest prevalence of contraceptive use on the planet.

It is impossible to argue that there is a crisis so great in the area of contraception that the federal government is compelled to respond, and that its response must include forcing Catholic institutions to give up their religion.

When the White House first announced the mandate, many Catholics like myself thought Catholic institutions, surely, would not be bound. We were wrong. Despite weeks of “compromise” rhetoric there has been literally no change in the substance of the rule. Only employers who hire and serve co-religionists will be granted an exemption by the administration, a tiny fraction of the Catholic institutions in the United States.

The bishops have called it an attack on religious freedom, and that it is, but what makes it so brazen is the utter absence of any justification for it. The White House line is that women must be given “access to contraceptive services.” But all women have unrestrained access to contraception today, as well as to abortion-inducing drugs that fall under the mandate. One college offers “morning after” pills to its students in vending machines.

There is no good reason for the mandate and even less reason to put Catholic institutions under it, against their will and in violation of their religious liberty.

The exercise of raw political power on the part of the administration is, frankly, breathtaking. I can’t help but imagine the conversation behind closed doors at the White House that winter day: “We’re really doing it! We’re putting America on the pill, and we’re sending the Catholic Church the bill.

Why go to battle with the Catholic Church? The answer may lie beyond the current fray. So much of what the Catholic Church stands for is antithetical to so many positions of Mr. Obama and his core supporters (think abortion, embryo-destructive research, same-sex marriage). Perhaps, at bottom, this is no more than a power play. Take the Catholic Church down a notch now and make future battles easier later.

But the Catholic Church has never been made to surrender its beliefs, not in 2,000 years. Nor will it surrender this time.

Cathy Cleaver Ruse is senior fellow at the Family Research Council and was a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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