WASHINGTON – Gene Robinson, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, believes the debate over the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate is a "women's health issue" rather than a religious liberty matter.
At an event on Thursday sponsored by the progressive organization the Center for American Progress, Robinson, most known for being the first openly gay, non-celibate priest to be ordained in the Episcopal Church, told The Christian Post about how he felt regarding the debate.
"The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion worldwide is actually been very supportive on the contraception issue for decades now and did so as a worldwide organization fairly early on," said Robinson.
"We would see it as a women's health issue. We've never described it as a surreptitious abortion as some contraceptive methods have been. We've never drawn that distinction. And therefore we would see it as a very personal and legitimate choice."
Robinson's remarks came on a day when he was part of a panel organized by CAP to counter the claims of religious organizations that religious liberty is being threatened by issues such as same-sex marriage and the contraception mandate.
Sally Steenland, director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative for CAP, gave the opening remarks for the event titled "Religious Liberty: What It Is and Isn't."
"If you have also heard the dire warning of conservatives, you would think that religious liberty is hanging by a thread," said Steenland.
"Now these claims are apocalyptic and wrong. The truth is that religious liberty is alive and well in America."
In the discussion that followed, some panelists argued that the Catholic Church and others were advancing institutional religious freedom over individual religious freedom.
But Hannah Smith, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, an organization that filed the first suits against Health and Human Services over the controversial contraception mandate, told CP that religious liberty was in fact the key issue.
"The mandate attacks our religious freedom because it forces Americans to choose between following their religious convictions and following the law," said Smith.
"Anytime the government uses the coercive power of the state (here through threat of severe financial penalties) to coerce religious institutions to conform to its own political policy agenda, religious liberty is threatened."
Regarding the claim made by some of the panelists that the efforts by the Catholic Church and others only sought protection for institutional religious liberty at the expense of individual liberty, Smith stated that "nothing could be further from the truth."
"Religious groups opposed to the mandate are not forcing anyone to change their beliefs or act in anyway contrary to individuals' own beliefs. Religious groups simply want to be able to be true to their own beliefs and religious mission," said Smith.
"What's really going on is the government trying to force religious objectors to pay for it against their conscience, even when most people already have access to contraception and use it when needed."
In addition to Robinson, other panelists included Robert P. Jones, founding CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute; Sammie Moshenberg, director of Washington Operations, National Council of Jewish Women, and Melissa Rogers, director of Wake Forest University Divinity School's Center for Religion and Public Affairs.
While the conversation by some of the panelists included talk of anti-contraception mandate efforts being "anti-women's equality," Robinson told CP that terms like "war on women" and "attack on religious liberty" were equally vitriolic.
"What we are seeing now is just almost unprecedented polarization and deionization and I think aggressive warlike terms don't help any of us," said Robinson.
"I think we would be better off with nonviolent language, because violent language only makes people dig in deeper rather than listen."
Robinson referred to such terminology by both sides as "a conversation stopper" at a time in American politics when "what we need is more conversation."