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How Jewish groups became involved in the contraception coverage debate

by Ron Kampeas, JTA

February 14, 2012 | 2:39 pm

U.S. President Barack Obama talks next to Secretary of HHS Kathleen Sebelius about contraceptive care funding in the press room of the White House in Washington, on Feb. 10. Photo by REUTERS/Larry Downing

U.S. President Barack Obama talks next to Secretary of HHS Kathleen Sebelius about contraceptive care funding in the press room of the White House in Washington, on Feb. 10. Photo by REUTERS/Larry Downing

What were the Jews doing becoming so involved in a debate over contraception?

It was a question that more than Jewish official asked themselves over recent months as tensions between the Obama administration and leaders of the Catholic Church rose to the boiling point over the issue of contraceptive coverage.

The Catholic Church rejects contraceptive use as immoral, and Catholic bishops protested vigorously when the Obama administration established a federal regulation that would have required an array of Catholic institutions to cover contraception as part of their health insurance plans for employees. By contrast, Jews across the religious spectrum sanction the use of contraception, albeit for different reasons.

Yet Jewish groups ended up weighing in on both sides of the controversy.

How Jews became involved in the debate—even making suggestions regarding the eventual compromise proposal that the White House hoped would put the controversy to rest—is a tale of deep ties between some Jewish groups and the White House, the interfaith alliances forged by the politically like-minded and the tendency of Jewish groups to involve themselves in narrow questions that may not affect them directly but have broader implications for the relationship between religion and state.

Speaking on background, a number of Jewish organizational officials said at times they felt discomfited being drawn into a dispute between the White House and another religion.

Yet Jewish groups weighed in even before the Department of Health and Human Services first issued the regulation that provided only a narrow exception from the contraceptive coverage mandate for houses of worship and other institutions deemed to have a primarily religious purpose—an exemption that effectively excluded many other religiously affiliated institutions such as hospitals, universities and charities.

Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s executive director of public policy, said his group joined a loose alliance of religious groups in writing to the White House seeking reassurances about reports that such a rule was in the offing. When the groups’ fears were realized, the coalition again wrote to protest.

“We signed on with Catholic groups and other Christian groups expressing concern, and there were conversations over the ensuing time,” he said.

Diament noted that the OU does not reject contraception coverage per se.

“Our concerns are less contraception than that some organizations are deserving of protection” from government mandates “and others are not,” he said.

Agudath Israel of America, the haredi Orthodox umbrella group, also weighed in against the rule. Its Washington director, Abba Cohen, cast the implications as broader than contraceptive coverage. Government mandates conceivably could extend to end-of-life issues, he said, where Orthodox practices at times clash with those of the medical community.

“Fundamentally, we believe that constitutional rights of free exercise [of religion] must be honored,” Cohen said. “It’s not just birth control and abortion, it’s the larger issue of health and medical ethical issues.”

At the same time that Orthodox Jews were joining with other critics of the new regulation, another important Jewish organizational constituency, Jewish women’s groups, were praising it.

The National Council of Jewish Women, Jewish Women International and Hadassah all favored the plan because it was a natural for groups dedicated equally to protecting the rights of Jews and women, said Sammie Moshenberg, director of NCJW’s Washington office.

The focus, she said, was “how can we ensure that women in this country have access to no-cost birth control regardless of where they work.”

There was a Jewish issue at play as well, she said, noting that Catholic institutions often employ non-Catholics. It was objectionable, Moshenberg said, “to say that a woman’s employer’s beliefs on this trump her religious beliefs.”

Catholic bishops had pressed so hard by December for the regulation to be changed and the exemption expanded that Moshenberg found herself wondering whether the Obama administration would come out with a new ruling that would unsettle her. She asked for and received a meeting with high-ranking officials. Representatives from JWI and an array of liberal Christian groups joined Moshenberg at the meeting, where they were given the reassurances they sought.

While the Orthodox and women’s groups were coming at the issue from opposite ends, the Reform movement was mulling the inherent contradictions posed by the regulation to two of its core beliefs—the autonomy of religious institutions and of women.

Throughout the process, the White House consulted with Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, who has a strong relationship with the White House and is on the president’s group of faith advisory leaders.

On Jan. 20, the White House reasserted its commitment to its August rule: none but the most strictly defined religious institutions would be exempt. But the ensuing expressions of outrage from Catholics—and condemnations from Republicans, as well as some Democrats—caused the White House to seek a compromise.

Saperstein and Orthodox Union officials were among the religious leaders who contributed ideas toward a potential compromise solution, although most of the work was done in house by the Obama administration.

“I like others pushed for both a robust religious exemption and a goal of covering every woman in ensuring access to contraception,” Saperstein said.

President Obama announced the resulting mechanism last Friday, noting that women would still have access to free preventive care that includes contraceptive services no matter where they work.

“But if a woman’s employer is a charity or a hospital that has a religious objection to providing contraceptive services as part of their health plan, the insurance company—not the hospital, not the charity—will be required to reach out and offer the woman contraceptive care free of charge, without co-pays and without hassles,” the president said.

This time, a wide spectrum of Jewish groups was on board. Hadassah, the Reform movement, the Orthodox Union, NCJW and JWI each welcomed the compromise.

Kinks remain, the White House told groups that attended a special briefing on the matter that afternoon—for instance, what to do about institutions that are self-insured.

“The president’s stated commitment is a positive first step forward, the details of implementation are crucial and we look forward to working with the administration to see that through,” the OU said.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops still had strong objections, however, to the administration’s new solution—and for at least one Jewish group, that’s what really matters.

“Whether or not the White House’s new ‘compromise’ proposal adequately addresses the religious freedom concerns raised by the Catholic Church is for the Catholic Church to say, not us—and, frankly, not the White House, either,” Agudah’s Cohen said in a statement. “The important points here are that no religiously sponsored entity, and no religiously motivated individual, should be forced by government to violate its or his sincerely held religious principles; and that the determination of religious propriety must be left to the religious entity or individual, not to the government.”

Indeed, even if the Jewish groups were not as invested in the specific issue of contraception, there was an assumption in some quarters that religious Jews would be sensitive to the religious concerns of others.

On Sunday, CNN’s Candy Crowley asked Jacob Lew, the new White House chief of staff, noting that he was an observant Jew, “Was there anything about this that made you think twice when it first went out?”

Lew avoided the question, saying that under the revised proposal, no religious institution would have to fund contraceptive coverage.

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