Whipsawed by the Catholic Church and advocates for birth control, the Obama administration has struck the wrong balance.
Complying with the administration's interpretation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act would force institutions that morally object to any artificial impediment to life or abortion-causing drugs to provide health insurance coverage for those contraceptives.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said churches would be exempt from the requirement. But the administration did not extend this "conscience clause" exemption to church-affiliated institutions, such as Catholic hospitals, universities, schools and social service agencies. While those employers were given an additional year to comply with the law, their health plans will still have to provide these contraceptives and hormonal abortifacients to employees at no charge. If they don't, they would face millions of dollars in fines.
The exemption is too narrow. And it's surprising, coming from President Barack Obama, who in his speeches has professed a more understanding and accommodating attitude toward religion in American life.
The administration should acknowledge the serious religious liberty issues involved, reverse its decision and expand the exemption to include all church-affiliated institutions. That would spare the Catholic Church this crisis of conscience. Even with this change, the mandate would still allow the administration to largely ensure that access to birth control is widely available and not limited by the $30 to $50 monthly cost for the prescription.
Two compelling interests are at odds here. The right to exercise religious beliefs without government interference is fundamental to the American way of life. The Catholic Church's theology includes aiding the sick and the poor, which it does through its hospitals, charities and schools. These institutions are inseparable from the church itself, which has the exemption.
But the government has a legitimate interest in promoting public health and controlling health care costs. Requiring insurers to cover preventive care such as mammograms, colonoscopies and contraceptives with no out-of-pocket costs for the insured will save lives and money -- and avoid some abortions.
Key to finding the best balance is acknowledging that the government's important public health objective wouldn't be thwarted by acknowledging the dilemma of religion-affiliated employers.
Catholic institutions employ more than a million people nationally. But affordable access to contraceptives would still be guaranteed for 195 million people with private health insurance.
Unless the administration relents, the Catholic Church will be left with two options: Stop providing employee medical insurance or shut down its hospitals, schools and charities.
Washington shouldn't force any church to make that kind of choice.
This dispute is about religious freedom, but not necessarily the constitutional right to free exercise of religion. The Constitution bars Congress from making any laws to prohibit that right, but existing laws in 28 states similar to the federal policy on birth control have been ruled constitutional. That includes New York's 2003 statute requiring any health insurance plan that covers prescription drugs to cover contraceptives as well. Its religious exemption is just as narrow as the one from Washington.
But there's room for religious institutions to sidestep state statutes, church officials said, for instance by self-insuring for drug coverage.
Some legal jousting is inevitable. But this dispute is more about policy and politics than rights. That means there's room for compromise.
The new federal mandate is just one front in the nation's protracted struggle over reproductive rights, including abortion. Champions of those rights have long been at odds with the Catholic Church. The positions are deeply held and the debate is passionate.
But it should still be possible to reach a more reasonable accommodation on birth control.