Connecticut bishops cool to turnabout on contraceptives

Washington –President Obama’s turnaround on his contraceptives policy for religiously affiliated institutions has failed to win over the Catholic bishops in Connecticut, but it won praise from prominent state Democrats who were drawn into an election-year debate that the party hopes will fade.

“(It) indicates that (Obama) saw a need to review the current edict and the serious implications that it has on our First Amendment right to Freedom of Religion,” said Michael Culhane, spokesman for the state’s Catholic bishops in a statement that was echoed by the U.S. Conference of Bishops.

“However, it is premature to determine if these infringement issues have been totally addressed,” continued Culhane. “We are reserving judgment until we can study this revision more closely.”

Changing course on a decision made last month, Obama Friday announced that the government would not force religiously affiliated institutions, including schools, charities and hospitals, to offer birth control coverage in their health plans. Female employees of these religiously affiliated institutions will, however, be able to ask their company’s insurers to add that coverage to their policy for free.

Obama said the decision protects religious liberty while ensuring that “women will still have access to free preventive care that includes contraceptive services no matter where they work.”

Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said the president’s decision undercuts the Catholic Church’s argument that it shouldn’t have to pay for birth control. The church opposes most forms of contraception.

“If you frame it as something where you don’t have to pay for it, it is simply a question of contraception, and the church loses on that,” Ornstein said. “The church is not going to like what the president has done.”

Nevertheless, Obama’s policy change won praise from Democrats on Capitol Hill.

Connecticut Reps. John Larson. D-1st District, and Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, were part of a growing group of Democrats who helped push Obama toward a change of policy, with Larson’s leadership position in the House as chairman of the Democratic conference gaining his comments significant national media attention.

Larson wrote a letter urging the president to reconsider, a position that drew him into a debate with U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District. It came after his close political ally, Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, defended the president’s original policy on MSNBC.

“The administration is going to listen to major Democrats he respects,” Ornstein said. “It is going to pay attention when some of its strongest supporters on other things say, ‘Hold on, find a better way.'”

Ornstein said the president was also influenced by the success Republicans and the Catholic Church were having in framing the issue as one of religious freedom. Obama and his supporters had tried to make it a question of women’s health and reproductive rights.

On Friday, Connecticut Democrats smoothed over any differences with each other and the administration.

Larson and Courtney, who are both Roman Catholics, hailed the president’s decision.

“I applaud the administration’s new rule, which balances First Amendment religious concerns with women’s rights and women’s health,” Courtney said in a statement.

Malloy, who strenuously defended the original policy on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” has no problem with the compromise, said his spokesman, Andrew Doba.

“The governor thinks it’s a reasonable compromise,” Doba said.

Larson also praised the president’s turnabout.

“I want to applaud President Obama for finding a path forward to provide coverage to everyone while addressing the conscience concerns of religiously-affiliated organizations,” Larson said.

A member of the Democratic House leadership, Larson had written Health and Human Services Department Secretary Kathleen Sebelius asking for a change in policy.

But the president’s announcement may have come as a surprise to Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, and other Connecticut lawmakers who had defended Obama against Republican attacks.

In an interview with WNPR Thursday evening, Murphy, who is running for Senate, strongly defended Obama’s decision to require religious institutions to offer contraceptive coverage in their health plans.

“When you’re talking about Catholic hospitals or Catholic universities, you’re talking about places with thousands of employees that take millions of dollars in public money. I just think as a matter of fairness we should apply this standard to those institutions,” Murphy said.

Murphy, DeLauro and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who had also been on the front lines in defending the president’s original stance on contraceptives, remained loyal to the White House on Thursday.

“This policy preserves the necessary balance between women’s access to the health care they need, at no additional cost … while being respectful of churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship,” DeLauro said in a statement.

DeLauro, as well as Blumenthal and Murphy, said they will fight attempts by Republicans to push legislation that would further roll back the contraceptive policy.

“Today’s announcement won’t change the fact that women’s rights are under assault in Washington,” Murphy said.

Earlier this week, Republican Linda McMahon, who is also running for the Senate, said forcing religiously affiliated institutions to offer birth control coverage is “an all-out assault on the U.S. Constitution.”

“The idea that the federal government would mandate that religious institutions like colleges and hospitals put practicing Catholics in direct conflict with their beliefs is unconscionable,” she said.

Vincent Moscardelli, assistant political science professor at the University of Connecticut, said Murphy won’t be hurt much by going out on a political limb for the president.

“Connecticut is an overwhelmingly Catholic state, but it’s also a deep blue (Democratic) state so I don’t think it will be a major issue in Murphy’s campaign,” Moscardelli said.

“Any potential opponent will have a hard time getting traction on this.”