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Margaret Carlson: Bishops should accept compromise, move on

  • Bloomberg News
  • Published Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013, at 5:10 p.m.
  • Updated Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013, at 5:10 p.m.

U.S. Catholic bishops have a lot to worry about: the gunning down of children; 11 million undocumented immigrants, many of them Catholic; a warming planet; a chilly economy. Instead they’ve spent the past year obsessed with contraception.

The bishops are furious over the Affordable Care Act, which generally requires employers to cover contraception. It isn’t a novel concept. Nine years ago, 86 percent of the plans that insurance companies typically wrote for employers covered contraception. It’s included as part of a minimum standard of coverage by the Institute of Medicine.

Even so, purely religious institutions such as churches were exempted from providing such coverage. The bishops wanted a wider exemption for all religious organizations, not just those whose main purpose was the “inculcation of religious values” and whose employees were primarily Catholic.

And so President Obama promised a year ago – with a nudge from Vice President Joe Biden, a Catholic – to reconsider. He pledged that he would expand the institutional exemptions.

Obama kept his word, and last week, in the form of new regulations from the Department of Health and Human Services, the definition of “religious organizations” was expanded to include nonprofit religious groups whose work is inspired by their faith. Employees can still get coverage for birth control, but it will be separate from a religious employer’s plan.

A Catholic teaching hospital, for example, may not want to pay for a nurse’s birth-control pills. So an insurer will offer a separate policy. The slight premium (slight because insurers save money with fewer accidental pregnancies) will be offset by lowering fees that insurers will pay to be in new health care exchanges.

Everyone happy? Not a chance. Even though the new regulation shows that the president has taken the bishops’ objections into account, they refuse once again to declare victory and move on to aiding the poor and comforting the sick. They will not be satisfied, apparently, if even one employee of a Catholic-aligned institution is getting birth control through insurance.

Of course, Catholics will use contraception. They have been for decades. But the bishops continue their war against it by other means. They will in all likelihood object to these latest regulations (as of this writing, they were still studying them) and maintain the dozens of lawsuits making their way through the courts.

In a pluralistic society, we have to balance the greater good against religious liberty. This right isn’t an absolute. When it considered the subject 23 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that even if smoking peyote is part of your religious practice, the government can still arrest you for it. So observant soldiers might be required to fight on the Sabbath, or (if they are Quakers) fight at all, while Hare Krishna can’t play tambourines at the airport.

When a law is reasonable, as unintrusive as possible, and only incidentally affects religion, there is no exemption required. In other words: The Obama administration didn’t have to issue new regulations. But it did. The president didn’t have to placate the bishops, but he is trying to anyway. Maybe they should be more grateful.

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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