Two days after the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) took steps to implement the contraception mandate, President Obama went with his wife and one daughter to a parish in the Episcopal Church, which supports the HHS mandate.
The president, Michelle, and Sasha Obama, who do not often attend church publicly, walked this morning to the nearby "St. John's Church, which is Episcopalian," the pool reporter noted. "The service was traditional Episcopal; at 11:57 a.m. the Obamas rose in turn with the other churchgoers and walked up to the altar where they all knelt together and received communion."
St. John's Church has been called "the Church of the Presidents" due to its proximity to the White House, but the parish -- which the Obamas last attended in December -- is part of a church body sympathetic to Obama's contraception mandate, which many religious institutions and groups have opposed as an infringement of religious liberty.
The Episcopal Church has "endorsed" the mandate, according to Christian Newswire, and is a member organization of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights, which recently denounced the Roman Catholic bishops and others who oppose the mandate. "The Catholic hierarchy and some religious extremist groups have turned the inclusion of contraception coverage in the health care law into a public battle about their 'religious freedom,'" said Reverend Alethea Smith-Withers of the RCRC Board of Directors. "The opposite is the case. They are using religion as a cover to discriminate against women."
Smith-Withers charge of discrimination repeats an accusation that mandate proponents have leveled at religious groups throughout the controversy. Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., charged the Roman Catholics with attempting "to impose their religious beliefs on other people, on the employees of religiously affiliated hospitals and universities" by refusing to pay for those employees' contraception. Rep. Gwendolyn Moore, D-Wis., agreed, accusing the Roman Catholic Church of trying "to stand on its bully pulpit and separate women from critical, vital health care needs."
As The Washington Examiner observed, the American Civil Liberties Union also accused church groups of using "religion to discriminate and deny millions of women access to birth control."
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement earlier this week explaining their position. "This is not about access to contraception, which is ubiquitous and inexpensive, even when it is not provided by the Church's hand and with the Church's funds," the bishops wrote on March 14. "This is not about the Bishops' somehow "banning contraception," when the U.S. Supreme Court took that issue off the table two generations ago. Indeed, this is not about the Church wanting to force anybody to do anything; it is instead about the federal government forcing the Church--consisting of its faithful and all but a few of its institutions--to act against Church teachings."
HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has rejected the bishops' view. "The President’s policy respects religious liberty and makes free preventive services available to women," Sebelius said in a statement late Friday afternoon. "Today’s announcement is the next step toward fulfilling that commitment."