Social conservatives press Obama on administration's birth-control mandate

A group of social conservative lawmakers on Wednesday intensified its push to overturn President Obama's new birth-control mandate.

The lawmakers, representing both parties and both chambers, said the president's recent "accommodation" would still force some employers — particularly faith-based nonprofits — to cover contraception in defiance of their moral convictions.

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"Despite news reports ... nothing has really changed," Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.) said during a press briefing in the Capitol. "We have a vague statement about who's going to pay for what, but it's nothing but a shell game."

The issue, Lipinski added, "clearly is not settled."

The lawmakers are pushing legislation that would grant waivers to any employer that objects to the birth-control mandate for either religious or moral reasons.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), the lead sponsor of the House proposal, accused the administration of "using the strong arm of government" to force employers to cover services "that may violate their ethics and their conscience rights."

"These providers and other Americans are left with a choice: Follow your deeply held beliefs and convictions, or obey President Obama," Fortenberry said. "That's a false choice."

Fortenberry said House GOP leaders want to move the proposal through regular order — meaning committees of jurisdiction will first hold hearings before the bill hits the floor. "But," Fortenberry added, "I hope that it is expedited." 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said over the weekend that he's hoping to get an upper-chamber vote on the bill "as soon as possible."

At issue is a provision of the Democrats' healthcare reform law requiring employers to cover their workers' preventative services, a category the Health and Human Services Department has said must include contraception. The administration exempted churches, but not church-based charities, universities and hospitals.

The discrepancy incited an outcry from Republicans, some Democrats and religious groups, particularly the Catholic Church, which led Obama to tweak the mandate on Friday so that women's contraceptive services remain both available and free, with the cost absorbed by the employer's insurance company, not the employer itself.

The change split the Catholic Church, with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops condemning the move but other groups, like the Catholic Health Association (CHA), praising it.

Carol Keehan, CHA's president, said Obama's compromise "protects the religious liberty and conscience rights of Catholic institutions."

Encouraged by such support, White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew said Sunday that the policy tweak should settle the issue.

"It does not force an institution that has religious principle to offer or pay for benefits that they find objectionable, but it guarantees a women's right to access. We think that's the right solution," Lew said on "Fox News Sunday."

"Hopefully now this will set the issue to rest."

Social conservatives on Capitol Hill, however, say the issue is far from resolved.

"This is a core, important religious liberty issue," said Sen. David Vitter (R-La.). "This doesn't just involve contraception, although that is serious enough as it is. It also involves abortion-inducing drugs like Plan B and sterilization. 

"President Obama's so-called 'accommodation,'" Vitter added, "has not changed anything."

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) said Obama's new policy "doesn't pass the straight-face test."

"Who buys the insurance?" Smith asked. "The religious employers buy it, and if there's a co-pay ... so do their employees." 

Several Republicans used Wednesday's podium to warn reporters that, if the administration is willing "to trample" on religious freedoms, in the words of Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio), its next target could be the media.

"Freedom of religion is the first part of the First Amendment," said Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.). "You guys are in there too, and you need to be thinking about that." 

"This isn't about contraception, this is about our Constitution," echoed Schmidt. "That's what you [the media] need to focus on, because they're going to come after you."

The tension between church and state is hardly new, nor is the idea that the federal government would dictate certain boundaries to religious freedom. At the end of the 19th century, for instance, Utah was denied statehood until it disavowed polygamy, a practice sanctioned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which effectively governed the territory.

Much more recently, the Supreme Court ruled that state employees in Oregon could be denied unemployment benefits if they were fired for using peyote — an illegal drug — even if their religious beliefs condoned its use.

“To permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself,” Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the most conservative justices on the high court, wrote in that 1990 case.

Since then, Congress has enacted legislation pushing back against the court's decision, but as the recent debate over Obama's birth-control mandate reveals, tensions between church and state clearly remain.

"This needs to change," Vitter said of the rule. "It needs to change in statute, and we're going to make sure that it does."

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