Our editorial made it to the White House.
On Tuesday a Day editorial criticized the Obama administration's decision to require Catholic institutions such as hospitals, soup kitchens and charitable services to pay for employee insurance coverage that includes free access to birth control and sterilization procedures. We took the position that this policy impinged on the free practice of religion, forcing a faith group to pay for something it considers morally wrong. We also considered it a ham-fisted political move because it would needlessly alienate Catholic voters.
On Friday the president announced the administration is amending its decision. Employees at these institutions will still get access to birth control, but directly from health insurance companies. Religious universities and hospitals that see contraception as an unconscionable violation of their faith can refuse to cover it through the premiums they pay.
Josh Zembik, communications director for U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, tells us the congressman sent The Day editorial over to the White House, letting the administration know that the initial policy decision did not have the support of a newspaper that had endorsed the president and backed his health reform plan -- the Affordable Care Act. Zembik said it was his impression the White House miscalculated the backlash the birth-control order would generate.
Rep. Courtney issued this statement: "I applaud the Administration's new rule, which balances First Amendment religious concerns with women's rights and women's health. The prior rule imposed a financial and legal obligation on faith-affiliated institutions that would have potentially disrupted employee coverage and ensnared the health care law in years of litigation.
The fact that the rule announced today has already won endorsements from a diverse group, including Planned Parenthood and Sister Carol Keehan, the president of the Catholic Health Association -- a trade group representing Catholic hospitals -- demonstrates that a true middle ground has been reached."
Priests across the Diocese of Norwich had spoken out against the birth-control order at Masses the last couple of Sundays. Michael Strammiello, communications director for the diocese, said Bishop Michael Cote was evaluating the policy change and did not yet have an official comment.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which had launched a crusade against the proposed rule, issued a cautiously positive statement:
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) sees initial opportunities in preserving the principle of religious freedom after President Obama's announcement today. But the Conference continues to express concerns. "While there may be an openness to respond to some of our concerns, we reserve judgment on the details until we have them," said Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, president of the group.
"We hope to work with the Administration to guarantee that Americans' consciences and our religious freedom are not harmed by these regulations," Dolan went on to say.
Planned Parenthood of America issued its own cautiously positive statement.
"We believe the compliance mechanism does not compromise a woman's ability to access these critical birth control benefits. However, we will be vigilant in holding the administration and the institutions accountable for a rigorous, fair and consistent implementation of the policy, which does not compromise the essential principles of access to care," said the organization's president, Cecile Richards.
If both sides remain relatively satisfied after they study the details, Obama may escape political damage and possibly even benefit by showing the ability to achieve balance on such a controversial topic.
Conversely, if the Catholic Church or birth-control advocates refuse to live with what is perceived as a good-faith effort to achieve commom ground, they risk being dismissed by much of the public as unwilling to compromise.