More than 500 Catholic activists from diocesan peace and justice and Catholic Charities offices across the country in Washington this week for the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering are on their way this afternoon to Capitol Hill. They will be highlighting the domestic and international policy concerns of the U.S. Catholic bishops in conversations with their home senators and house members. This time, in addition to what have become annual appeals to protect discretionary spending for unemployment benefits, foreign aid and other domestic and international discretionary spending that have become regular targets of budget hawks, the gathering’s impromptu activist army will be pushing back against what the bishop’s perceive as unconstitutional intrusion by the Obama administration on religious liberty. That conflict began in August after the release of an “interim” requirement from the Department of Health and Human Services for mandatory women’s preventive services included contraception coverage and offered a narrow conscience exemption for religious employers.
Last week President Obama tried to put the issue to rest with a “common sense accommodation” that he argues removes objecting employers from the equation, requiring insurers to offer contraception free of charge without additional premiums, referrals or plan offerings from employers. Objecting religious employers could offer health benefits which technically did not include contraception, but employees who wanted the services would be able to get them directly from the insuruer. One activist summed up the objection to the compromise: “He wants us to lie to our employers [about what is in the health plans], and he wants us to still pay for contraception.”