Is the Obama Administration ‘At War’ with Catholics?

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While the nation’s Catholic bishops were gathered in Baltimore for their annual meeting this week, Washington Post columnist and former Bush adviser Michael Gerson wrote an op-ed declaring that part of the Obama Administration “is at war with Catholic leaders and Catholic belief.” Echoing the words of New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Gerson wrote that “the conscience protections of Catholics are under assault” and predicted that Obama would suffer a loss of support from Catholic voters in next year’s election.

But has Obama really “turn[ed] his back on Catholics,” as the headline for Gerson’s column put it? Does his Administration have an unwritten “Anybody But Catholics” rule, as Sister Mary Ann Walsh, the bishops conference’s director of media relations, recently suggested? Obama has undoubtedly been ill-served by missteps that have played into these critics’ narratives, but on closer inspection, his Administration’s relationship with Catholics seems to suffer more from mismanagement than from any real malice.

Although Obama has been taking fire from conservative Catholics since the start of his administration–recall the uproar that attended his commencement speech at Notre Dame–the latest trouble started in August. That’s when the Department of Health and Human Services announced that as a result of health reform, all private insurance plans would be required to cover contraceptive services without co-pays or deductibles for patients. The agency proposed an exemption for “religious employers,” but the  guidelines were so narrow that they excluded most religious universities and hospitals. Still, it was just an interim rule and the agency asked for public input before it decided whether to use the proposed definition, expand it, or scrap it altogether.

The bishops conference called on HHS to rescind the contraception mandate entirely–even though it wasn’t in effect yet–and called the religious employer definition “inexplicably narrow.” Even the White House’s Catholic allies were taken aback by the HHS announcement. Senator Bob Casey sent Sebelius a letter asking that “no religious organization” be “compelled to take actions that violate their conscience rights.” The secretary also fielded concerns from an ad hoc group of Catholics that included former Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Dahlkemper, Catholic University’s Stephen Schneck, and Sister Simone Campbell, whose outspoken support of health reform was influential in getting it passed last year.

“It really has been badly handled,” Schneck told me recently. “It boggles the mind that they could have thought about this and not realized the implications of conscience issues.” Indeed, the Obama administration appeared caught off-guard by the blowback from all sides. Choice groups like the National Partnership for Women & Families urged supporters to “tell [HHS] Secretary Sebelius to stand strong against anti-choice extremists” who support an exemption for religious employers. Meanwhile, aides scrambled to tell Catholic allies that the HHS proposal was only an interim rule and could still change. They subtly suggested that Catholics would be more pleased with the final rule.

But the damage was already done. The bishops conference sent a bulletin insert to every diocese in the country to be distributed to parishioners that called the HHS rule “an unprecedented attack on religious liberty.” Just days before the public comment period on the HHS proposal ended, the bishops conference announced the formation of an Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, citing the HHS rule as a primary threat.

What could the Obama administration have done differently? For starters, it seems clear that any religious exemption was going to be met with fierce resistance from abortion rights organizations. Given that reality, HHS could have gone with a broader definition of religious employers it is considering–one used by the IRS that includes organizations whose employees aren’t necessarily all members of the same faith. After all, even with the religious exemption, the HHS mandate represents the biggest expansion of contraception coverage in American history. That’s a fairly strong case for the White House to make with pro-choice groups.

HHS could also have taken up a solution suggested by Melissa Rogers, a professor at Wake Forest University Divinity School and a former member of the White House Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. As Rogers has written, some states like Hawaii and New York require insurance companies to “allow enrollees in a health plan of an objecting religious employer to purchase coverage of contraceptive services directly and to do so at a cost that does not exceed” what they would have paid under a plan through a non-objecting employer.

At the very least, the administration could have given its Catholic allies a heads-up before the contraception coverage announcement so that it wasn’t once again forced to do damage control. One frustrated progressive Catholic activist complained to me that “when Kathleen Sebelius was nominated, we had notice 48 hours ahead of time” to ready a defense of the Catholic Democrat. “We found out about [Obama’s scheduled speech at] Notre Dame after the fact. And with this, we’re chasing the story.” (The administration also managed to ruffle feathers with another recent HHS decision–this time, opting not to renew a grant to the USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services to work with sex trafficking victims.)

Even so, Obama’s Catholic supporters sense that partisanship is driving current uproar about threats to religious liberty more than genuine concern about religious rights. Remember, the final HHS rule is still being developed and could well end up with a broad religious exemption. Schenk draws a comparison to the bishop conference’s 2009 campaign against the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), an abortion rights bill that has not even been introduced during Obama’s time in the White House. “To a certain extent, we’re seeing a replay about FOCA here,” says Schenk. “There’s a lot of political ground to be made by having a campaign even if you’re expecting a different outcome.”

If Schneck is right, then the “war” Gerson and other conservatives claim to see wasn’t started by the Obama Administration. But by bungling policy decisions and basic communications strategy, it has handed plenty of ammunition to its opponents.

Amy Sullivan is a contributing writer at TIME, and author of the book The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap (Scribner, 2008). Articles of Faith, her column on the intersection of religion and politics, appears on every Friday.