Rep. Darrell Issa, who has followed through on his threat to turn his Committee on Oversight and Government Reform into an attack dog on the Obama administration, today held a one-sided hearing attacking as a threat to religious liberty the administration’s recent compromise on health care regulations requiring insurers to cover contraception.
Not present at the hearing was a representative of the Catholic Health Association, which has embraced the administration’s compromise. When asked about the CHA’s position, Bishop William Lori, head of the Catholic bishops’ new “religious liberty” task force, said archly that the CHA doesn’t speak for the church as a whole – the bishops do. But polls show that the bishops actually speak for a small minority of American Catholics on these issues.
Issa – who had no concerns about separation of church and state when he was pushing for federal funding for religious school vouchers in the District of Columbia – labeled his stacked hearing “Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?” It was striking for some of us who are accustomed to hearing conservative politicians and Religious Right figures denouncing the separation of church and state, and dismissing the letter in which Thomas Jefferson used the phrase, to hear Issa and his colleagues vigorously endorsing the concept – or at least the rhetoric – and invoking Jefferson.
Issa and fellow Republicans used the “religious liberty” frame as an excuse to prevent testimony from women affected by the lack of insurance coverage of contraceptives, which also serve as treatment for a variety of medical conditions. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (one of several Catholic Democrats who attended the heargin) and several members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings, forcefully raised the issue of women’s health, only to be told that access to health care was not the topic of the hearing. DeLauro drew a distinction between religious organizations as service providers – Catholic hospitals are not required to perform abortions, for example – and as employers. Nothing in the First Amendment, she said, says that religiously affiliated employers aren’t subject to same rules as every other employer. Republicans on the committee embraced the goalpost-moving standard staked out recently by the bishops, which is that not only should religiously affiliated organizations be exempt, but that any business owner should be able to cite religious beliefs as reason not to provide his employees with coverage.
The hearing made it clear that the GOP has decided to aggressively pursue their election year strategy of portraying Obama as an enemy of religious liberty. There was no rhetorical “bridge too far” at this hearing – it was suggested that the Obama administration was a few keystrokes away from completely eliminating religious freedom, and that it was using government coercion to force churches to change their religious doctrine. Even Joseph Stalin was invoked. GOP members of Congress encouraged panelists to portray themselves as willing martyrs to religious liberty – and panelists complied, with some saying they would be willing to go to jail rather than side with government over God.
It’s worth remembering with all the rhetoric about the end of freedom in America that the compromise plan would not require religious groups to provide or pay for coverage: insurance companies would contact employees directly, offer coverage to those who want it, and pick up the tab.
Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly, also Catholic, said he had had concerns with the original rules and believes the compromise addressed religious liberty concerns. He denounced Issa’s hearing as a “sham” and a “shameful exercise.” He scoffed at the going-to-jail rhetoric and told panelists they were being used, wittingly or not, as part of an anti-Obama political agenda.