Contraception ruling: Democrats accuse clergy of complicity with GOP at hearing

Democratic lawmakers exchanged testy words with their Republican counterparts at a House hearing Thursday that intensified the debate over President Obama's recent mandate on contraception. One Democrat even called into question the good faith of the broad array of clergymen who served on the witness panel.

"I believe today's hearing is a sham," said Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., of the first of two session held by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee during the day. His tone sharp and finger pointed, Connolly went on to declare the witnesses -- who included a Catholic bishop, a Lutheran reverend, an Orthodox rabbi, and two Baptist theologians, all opposed to the administration's recent ruling -- "complicit" in the Republicans' "trampling" of House traditions that would, if observed, have produced a more balanced panel.

"You are being used for a political agenda," Connolly told the holy men, after Republicans brandished images of President Kennedy and others to buttress their points. "This is a panel designed -- with your conscious participation or not -- to try, one more time, to embarrass the president of the United States and his administration, by overstating an issue which is sacred to all Americans: religious freedom. But of course, in order to do it, we have to, in an almost Stalinist-like fashion, have signs of Democratic icons to rub Democratic faces in it, as if those icons would be on the same side of this dispute today."

Earlier, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Democrat who serves as the District of Columbia's non-voting representative in the House, clashed with the panel's chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., about the composition of the panel.

"I want to have the right to make a parliamentary inquiry!" she yelled.

Issa rejected the minority members' complaints about the witness list, offering a timeline by which the list was developed and noting that he had included some witnesses at their behest, even though House rules did not require him to do so.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., who sat next to Norton and averted her gaze when the D.C. delegate shouted at Issa, registered her own objection to the composition of the witness panel. "What I want to know is: Where are the women?" she asked. "I don't see one single woman representing the tens of millions of women across the country who want and need insurance coverage for basic preventive health care services, including family planning."

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the son of two ministers, underscored Maloney's point, urging his colleagues to consider the "interests of women" as well as religious freedoms. "The pill has had a profound impact on their well-being -- far more than any man in this room can possibly know," Cummings said. "The chairman is promoting a conspiracy theory that the federal government is conducting a war against religion."

At issue is a recent ruling by the Department of Health and Human Services, backed by Obama, that mandates all employers to provide free contraception to women as part of their health care plans. Under pressure from religious groups like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the president last Friday announced an attempted "accommodation," under which Catholic-affiliated charities, hospitals, and schools -- where the use of birth control is opposed on doctrinal grounds -- would still have to provide the contraception, but insurers would have to pick up the tab.

The Conference has rejected this, as did the witnesses on the House panel. Reverend William E. Lori, the bishop of Bridgeport, Conn., and chairman of a committee on religious liberty at the Conference, related "the parable of the kosher deli" to make his point.

"It is absurd for someone to come into a kosher deli and demand a ham sandwich," Lori said. "But it is beyond absurd for that demand to be backed up with the coercive power of the state."

"While we are grandfathered under the very narrow provisions of the HHS policy," testified Reverend Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, president of the Lutheran Church's Missouri Synod, "we are deeply concerned that our consciences may soon be martyred by a few strokes on the keyboard."

Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University, said Obama's attempted compromise had proved "no accommodation at all."

"The religious organizations would still be obligated to provide employees with an insurance policy that facilitates acts violating the organization's religious tenets," Soloveichik told the lawmakers.

"You can have your own beliefs about birth control," countered Maloney, "but Americans are entitled to theirs, and I don't think they agree with you."