By E.J. Dionne Jr.
NOTE: This op-ed was first published May 21, 2012, by the Washington Post.
The federal lawsuits filed Monday by Catholic institutions against the contraception mandate under the health care law are not surprising, but they are unfortunate. The Bishops’ Conference and many — though not all — Catholic organizations are acting as if the Obama Administration had never backed down from its original, broad mandate and had never offered to negotiate.
But the administration, responding to a broadly united Catholic community, did offer a compromise and has since shown a willingness to try to accommodate many of the concerns of Catholic and other religious institutions. Now the Catholic community is split because many of us who initially backed the bishops cannot understand why they did not respond to the administration’s olive branch. Many bishops seem to want this fight.
There is certainly a case to pushing the administration to rewrite the definition of religious organizations under the health care regulations, but no reason to treat President Obama as an enemy of religious freedom. The bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign is looking more and more like a direct intervention in this fall’s elections.
As my friends at Commonweal, the progressive Catholic magazine, noted in an important editorial: “This initiative is being launched during an election year in which one party has assumed the mantle of faith and charges the other with attacking religion. The bishops need to do much more to prevent their national campaign from becoming a not-very-covert rallying point for the Republican Party and its candidates. If that happens, it is the church and the cause of religious freedom that will suffer.” Commonweal said there is something “hyperbolic” about how the bishops are framing their campaign, and I see this lawsuit as one aspect of that.
It’s worth noting that the Catholic Health Association, which backed Obama’s compromise, has not joined this suit. Michael Rodgers, the CHA’s senior vice president for public affairs and advocacy, said in an interview that the CHA “was not made aware that the lawsuits were being filed now.” He added that the group is working with the administration to “broaden the exemption by broadening the definition of what a religious institution is.” I wish the bishops and others involved in these lawsuits had given the path of negotiation more time before going to court.