On February 16th, the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hosted a hearing entitled "Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?" Following the controversy over contraception coverage and religious employers, the hearing featured Christian and Jewish religious leaders, as well as academics, medical professionals, and a church-state separation advocate. The preponderance of male faces on a panel with such strong relevance to women's reproductive issues drew the ire of lawmakers and commentators alike.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland, 7th District), Ranking Member of the House Oversight Committee, accused Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California, 49th District) of "promoting a conspiracy theory that the federal government is conducting a war against religion." Rep. Cummings reminded listeners of how contraception coverage impacts women, frowning on the absence of moderate religious groups on the panel. At the 11:25 mark, he had this to say.
"I know both through my faith and my legal training that we have an obligation as a nation to make accommodations when appropriate to avoid undue interference with the practice of religion. But there's another core interest we must consider, and that is the interest of women. The pill has had a profound impact on their well-being, far more than any man in this room can possibly know. It has allowed women to control their lives and make very personal decisions about how many children to have and when to have them. I think everyone understands what is going on here today. The chairman is promoting a conspiracy theory that the federal government is conducting a war against religion. He has stacked the hearing with witnesses who agree with his position. He has not invited Catholic Health Association, Catholic Charities, Catholics United, or a host of other Catholic groups that praised the White House for making the accommodation they made last week. He has also refused to allow a minority witness to testify about the interest of women who want safe and affordable coverage for basic preventive health care, including contraception. In my opinion, this committee commits a massive injustice by trying to pretend that the views of millions of women across this country are meaningless or worthless or irrelevant to the debate."Rep. Cummings yielded the rest of his time to Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-New York, 14th District), who soundly criticized the lack of female voices on the panel at the 13:14 mark.
"What I want to know is where are the women? When I look at this panel, 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. Where are the women?"Rep. Maloney dismissed Chairman Issa's claim that the hearing was simply about religious freedom, describing the high stakes for women at the 14:25 mark.
"Of course this hearing is about rights, contraception, and birth control. It's about the fact that women want to have access to basic health services, family planning through their health insurance plan, but some would prevent them from having it by using lawsuits and ballot initiatives in dozens of states to roll back the fundamental rights of women to a time when the government thought that what happened in the bedroom was their business and contraceptives were illegal. Tens of millions of us who are following these hearings lived through those times, and I can tell you with great certainty, we will not be forced back to that dark and primitive era."The latter part of Rep. Maloney's speech was inaudible in the video, unfortunately.
Likewise, at the 25:54 mark, Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Illinois, 5th District) also criticized Chairman Issa for defining the hearing as one on religious freedom rather than reproductive matters.
"For you to decide what the issue is, others look at the same points of fact and say the issue is really this. If you talk about liberties and expressions, I think freedom of thought is as important as any that you've discussed ... That's suppressing that freedom of thought. It's this notion that one person, as fair as you might be attempting to be, is unilaterally deciding what the issue is, and the core here is -- and that's why there's so much controversy on this matter -- is that people see it in a different way, and until we get past that point, we're going to have problems."Both Rep. Quigley and Rep. Eleanor Holmes (D-District of Columbia) were unhappy that the hearing had not included minority witness Sandra Fluke. Fluke, a student at Georgetown University Law Center and a prior president of Georgetown Law Students for Reproductive Justice, advocates for reproductive rights for women. In this video, Fluke laments the dire health consequences for women who cannot afford contraception because it is not covered by their insurance.
The panel of religious voices criticized the Obama administration's insurance accommodation in hyperbolic and sometimes unusual terms. Bishop William Lori of the Bridgeport diocese told a hypothetical story of a government mandate requiring food merchants to serve pork, and how offensive this mandate would be to Jewish delis and grocers. I personally found it offensive to hear the bishop compare access to contraception to access to ham sandwiches. After all, access to contraception prevents unwanted pregnancy and is used to treat various medical conditions, whereas ham sandwiches are merely a food choice.
Reverend Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, president of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, described the charitable work of Lutheran church in his opening statement. At the 41:49 mark, he insisted that his religious colleagues acknowledge separation of church and state.
"We haven't the slightest intent to Christianize the government ... We confess that there are two realms: the church and the state. They shouldn't be mixed. The church is governed by the word of God, the state by natural law and reason, the Constitution."At the 43:22 mark, Rev. Harrison claimed that the consciences of people of faith could be "martyred" by insurance policies. His comments about "abortion-causing drugs" left me scratching my head, as the Obama administration's policy requires religious employers to offer insurance coverage for contraceptives.
"I'm here to express our deepest distress over the HHS provisions. We are religiously opposed to supporting abortion-causing drugs. That is in part why we maintain our own health plan ... We are deeply concerned that our consciences may soon be martyred by a few strokes on the keyboard as this administration moves us all into a single-payer system."Dr. Craig Mitchell of Southwester Baptist Theological Seminary claimed that the contraception coverage mandate flew in the face of religious freedom at the 59:04 mark.
"To be an American means that we stand for religious freedom. This mandate is contrary to everything that I and every other person who wore the uniform stands for, regardless of what their faith was. This is true of people who have no faith. It is inconceivable to me and many others that such a bald-faced attempt to step on the Constitution of this great country was even proposed ... This mandate, in the name of health care, seems designed to offend those who have religiously-informed moral sensibilities. Simply put, this mandate forces people to violate their consciences."
Stay tuned for more quotes from the hearing!
To read additional commentary, visit the following links.
Politico: Liberals: All-Male Contraception Hearing Will Damage GOP
Religion Dispatches: Democratic Women Walk Out of "Freedom of Religion" Hearing
RH Reality Check: Religious "Freedom" to Deny Women Health Care: The Ham Sandwich Defense