The Obama administration has been quietly negotiating with representatives of the Conference of Catholic Bishops in an effort to tamp down their furious opposition to a federal mandate that insurance companies cover birth control, according to sources familiar with the talks.
Both sides have indicated that they hope to continue the negotiations, despite scant progress so far.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks is a terse definition – over what constitutes a religious institution – far removed from the emotional flash points of contraception and abortion that have dominated the often-fiery public debate. Yet the bishops see it as a crucial issue.
The language at issue exempts religious institutions from the insurance mandate only if they primarily employ and serve people of their own faith – and only if their main purpose is to inculcate religious values. This definition covers most houses of worship but not the vast network of faith-based organizations serving a broad public, such as hospitals, colleges, orphanages and homeless shelters.
President Barack Obama last month sought to accommodate those organizations by promising that they would not have to pay for their employees’ birth control; their insurers would. But his administration, keen to extend free contraception to as many women as possible, refused to exempt those institutions outright.
About 40 of the nation’s most influential bishops have been meeting this week in Washington, in part to map out strategy.
“Government has no place defining religion and religious ministry,” they said in a statement Wednesday. [more]