Whether he realizes it or not, President Obama has declared war with the U.S. Catholics Bishops. The administration has created a firestorm that must be quickly extinguished. Make no mistake about it, the January 20th decision by the Obama administration mandating that religious employers provide coverage for contraception, abortion drugs and sterilization under the Affordable Care Act is properly viewed by the Bishops as a direct attack on religious freedom. The mandate has far reaching effects. Among other things, thousands of employees of Catholic hospitals, universities, organizations, schools and Catholic Charities could lose their health care benefits rather than violate what essentially is a matter of conscience and religious principle. Without question, the bishops will vehemently oppose this mandate until it is overturned. Speaking for the U.S. Bishops, Cardinal elect Timothy Dolan said: “Never before has the federal government forced individuals and organizations to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience. This shouldnʼt happen in a land where free exercise of religion ranks first in the Bill of Rights.”
The campaign to overturn this mandate has already been launched with letters read from the pulpit, individual statements from Bishops, and action alerts urging calls and letters to Congressional representatives. Later this month, some 500 lay Catholic leaders will hold their annual social ministry conference in Washington. You can guess what the number one topic will be. This will serve to inspire greater mobilization within parishes across the nation.
Clearly, this blunder by the administration is an affront to all people ofconscience. It can and should be rectified immediately. Furthermore, this misstep has united Catholics, Evangelicals, and other religious leaders and institutions like no other issue in recent times. It also has the potential of adversely impacting the Presidentʼs bid for a second term by casting him as an enemy of people of faith, which he is not. Partisan organizations and individuals will enthusiastically use this issue as an opportunity to continue their opposition to national health care and as a platform to urge the electorate to oppose the President in the General Election. In their statements on the evening of the Florida Primary, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich capitalized on this controversy by strongly criticizing the President.
My hope is that the administration will move quickly to broaden the exemption for religious employers so that such employers will not have to face the unacceptable prospect of violating their conscience by purchasing those services that are anathema to their moral teaching. I fear that if such action is not taken, the compelling issues of the economy, poverty, unemployment, health care, human life, debt, home foreclosure, war, and foreign policy will not receive the attention they deserve during this most critical election year.
(Tom Allio is the retired senior director of the Cleveland Diocesan Social Action Office and the retired executive director of the Catholic Commission-Summit County. He served the Diocese of Cleveland for 32 1/2 years in social action).