Editor's note: Kevin Clarke is an Associate Editor at the Catholic weekly magazine, America. His work has appeared in Salt of the Earth magazine, U.S. Catholic magazine, the Utne Reader, Sojourners, The Chicago Tribune and The Chicago Reader.
(CNN) -- After weeks of tangling over new Health and Human Services guidelines requiring contraception services in new health insurance plans, the White House has offered what it describes as a "common sense accommodation." It is aimed at ending the confrontation between the Obama administration and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The new language maintains the religious exemption for church entities such as parishes and dioceses, but nonprofit religious employers will no longer be required to offer contraception as part of insurance coverage, pay for it via insurance premiums or refer employees to contraception benefits outside their plans. A senior White House official said the administration believes the changes reflect "a health care policy that accommodates religious liberty while protecting women."
If the bishops are smart they won't, as one member of the conference told me, "snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory" and push the administration much further on this issue. Dead-enders could complain that a comingling of funds means religious employers would still be paying for contraception. The White House argues that since contraception is actually a cost-saving benefit, insurers don't have to add a charge for it to insurance premiums.
With today's policy revisions announced, many Americans are still probably wondering what all the fuss was about. What should have a been a respectful dialogue between the Obama administration and the U.S. Catholic Church and other U.S. faith communities quickly devolved into a vast public relations battle fueled by the nation's unresolved culture wars and the hypersensitivity of election year politics.
Many may not have understood what U.S. bishops were worked up about: Don't most U.S. Catholics already ignore church teaching on contraception? But the moral and practical issues that revolve around contraception were never at the heart of the dispute, though it made great news copy. The central question: What are the constitutional limits of federal power in executing public policy that affects faith-based entities engaged in public service?
Can government assume for itself the authority to separate the secular from the religious, and if so, where does this authority extend in the future? If Catholic hospitals can be required to pay for insurance coverage for services that are contrary to Catholic teaching, what is to stop federal agencies from mandating services that are contrary to Catholic teaching at those institutions?
In fact the new guidelines so narrowed conscience exemptions that they essentially only applied to houses of worship, diocesan chanceries and primary schools. But the freedom for the free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment extends beyond church doors. In the United States faith communities are not merely guaranteed the freedom of worship, but the public institutional expression of faith. Catholic educational, health and social service institutions are extensions of the church itself, not spin-offs from its ancillary products division.
The Obama administration was on the verge of creating a new government authority to judge the validity of institutional religious claims, measured not by how that institution understands itself but by a head count of the faith background of its employees and the people it serves. This reduction of religious institutional identity jeopardized a tradition of civic engagement by the U.S. Catholic Church for the public good -- in education, health care, poverty mitigation and more.
The original mandate put Catholic institutions from colleges to hospitals to large social service providers like Catholic Charities USA into an untenable position. They could have ceased offering health care insurance to their employees and incurred crippling, perhaps terminal fines from the federal government. Or they could have closed their doors to non-Catholics or just closed their doors altogether, ending the church's mission of service to the wider community, defying an inescapable component of Catholic faith.
Let's hope that all sides can now move forward and we can put that possibility behind us. We know that the president, who has spoken frequently of how his personal faith motivates his decision-making, most recently at the National Prayer Breakfast, believes that religious faith cannot and should not be limited to Sunday services, that it has a vibrant and welcome role to play in American life. We know that the U.S. bishops seriously appreciate their responsibility to speak out on behalf of the least among us and for decades have done so specifically in their advocacy of a universal health care system.
It's possible that in this conflict both sides were standing on principle: the Obama administration seeking the extension of the best possible health care to all Americans; the bishops protecting venerable, valuable constitutional guarantees for all American faith communities.
It would be helpful now if both sides could end the mutual vilification and turn down the volume so that a more respectable and reasonable dialogue between government and faith communities proceeds in the future. That would mean finding a way to resist political pressure blocs that have no interest in a negotiated settlement but in the absolute defeat of one side or the other. It would mean talking instead of issuing more self-serving press releases.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kevin Clarke.