(Photo: REUTERS/Allison Joyce)
The Sunday morning political talk shows featured several religious leaders for Easter Sunday. In discussions over the intersection of church and state, the controversy over the Obama administration's birth control mandate became a hot topic. Several religious leaders said the issue is about religious freedom, not women's health.
"You've got a dramatic, radical intrusion of a government bureaucracy into the internal life of the Church," Cardinal Timothy Dolan said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation."
The birth control mandate, by the Department of Health and Human Services, will require employers to provide health insurance that covers free birth control, including contraceptives, sterilization and some abortion-inducing drugs. There is a religious exemption, but the exemption is narrowly written and many religious groups would not qualify.
In a February speech, President Obama announced that religious organizations would not have to provide the coverage, but the insurance companies must provide it for free to any employee of a religious organization that does not provide the coverage. This change, though, has not been codified in the law and many religious organizations, including the Catholic bishops, have said it does not satisfy their concerns.
Dolan repeated this message in the interview. He said that most Catholic institutions self-insure, so they will still have to pay for it.
"We still find ourselves in a very tough spot," Dolan said, "and we're still going to continue to express what we believe is not just a religious point of view but a constitutional point of view that America is at her best when the government doesn't force her citizens or a group of citizens in a religious creed to violate their deepest held moral convictions."
Bishop William Lori expressed similar concerns in a panel discussion about the role of faith in American politics on NBC's "Meet the Press." He said that we would not characterize the president's actions as a "war on religion," as many Republican presidential candidates have done, but there is "an erosion of religious liberty" from the administration.
The HHS mandate, according to Lori, is not the only issue where religious liberty has been eroded, but it is the most urgent. Additionally, Lori argued that the narrowly written religious exemption is imposing a government definition of what religion is going to be.
"If you're only serving your own, hiring your own, inculcating your own doctrine, you're exempt. But the minute you serve the common good, which is what all of our organizations do, then you're not exempt. Then you're subject to having to provide, fund or facilitate services which are contrary to the church's teaching. I don't think we should have to do that," Lori said.
Lori came back to the issue later in the discussion to again emphasize that the birth control mandate is about religious liberty, saying, "This represents a definite diminishment of our freedom to provide our services according to our rights."
Host David Gregory stepped out of his usual role as a neutral questioner at that point to suggest that he would not be able to convince Lori that he is wrong on the issue.
"Archbishop, you're still arguing this issue of contraception and the Obama administration's rule, ... but rather than go down that road, which I don't think we'll convince you, I want to stay on this sort of broader question," Gregory said.
On "Face the Nation," Bob Schieffer cited a Pew Research Center poll showing that a majority of Americans do not want religion involved in politics.
"Do you worry about getting too involved in politics?" Schieffer asked Dolan.
"Yeah, I do worry about that, Bob," Dolan answered, "and this is a good place for me to remind everybody, we didn't ask for this fight, ... but we're not going to back away from it.
"Yeah, I don't think religion should be too involved in politics, but I also don't think the government and politics should be overly involved in the church. And that's our problem here. ... Our problem is the government is intruding into the life of faith and in the church."
Evangelical pastor Rick Warren expressed solidarity with Catholic leaders when asked about the same issue on ABC's "This Week."
"The issue here is not about women's health," Warren said. "There is a greater principle and that is, do you have a right to decide what your faith practices. Now, I don't have a problem with contraception. I'm a Protestant, I'm an evangelical. But, I do support my Catholic brothers and sisters to believe what they want to believe."