WASHINGTON — Religious leaders told a House panel Thursday the Obama administration was violating basic rights to religious freedom with its policies for requiring that employees of religion-affiliated institutions have access to birth control coverage.
The unity of the religious leaders contrasted with the partisan divide among lawmakers on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, with Democrats saying they had been denied the ability to present witnesses who might support the government stance or speak for the rights of women to reproductive health coverage. They asked why women weren't better represented among the 10 witnesses at the hearing.
The issue has sparked a political firestorm for the administration, with Catholics and other religious groups strongly protesting an original Health and Human Services ruling that religion-affiliated institutions such as hospitals and universities must include free birth control coverage in their employee health plans. The churches themselves were exempted from the requirement.
Obama last Friday modified that policy so that insurance companies, and not the organization affiliated with a church, pay for birth control costs, but that didn't satisfy those testifying at the hearing.
Bishop William E. Lori, representing the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, compared the ruling to a law that would force all food providers, including kosher delicatessens, to serve pork.
"Does the fact that large majorities in society, even large majorities within the protesting religious community, reject a particular religious belief make it permissible for the government to weigh in on one side of that dispute?" he asked.
Churches played a role in the development of health care and "it is ironic that the religious organizations should have their rights crushed in the name of health care," said Dr. Craig Mitchell, a Baptist minister and head of the ethics department at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
The policy has split Catholics, a key constituency for Obama to win a second term in office,
The head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, told The Associated Press this week that his group would launch both legislative and court challenges to the health care mandate. Yet there are also some Catholic groups and individuals who have come out in support of the president's approach.
They were not there at Thursday's hearing.
"The chairman is promoting a conspiracy theory that the federal government is conducting a 'war' against religion," the top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, said of committee chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif. "He has also refused to allow a minority witness to testify about the interests of women who want safe and affordable coverage for basic preventive health care, including contraception," Cummings said of Issa.
Cummings added that a number of Catholic groups that have welcomed the administration's efforts to find a compromise, including the Catholic Health Association, and Catholics United, were not present at the hearing.
Issa responded that the committee did accept one Democratic witness, the Rev. Barry Lynn, head of Americans United For Separation of Church and State, but rejected a second person, a third-year student at Georgetown Law School named Sandra Fluke.
Issa said the student did not have the appropriate credentials to testify at a hearing focused on threats to religious freedom and not on a single aspect of the health care law.
A video of Catholic college students speaking in favor of the health care rule was put on the committee Web page.
Committee Democrats said they were told they could have only one witness, and they chose Fluke, who was prepared to speak of the consequences women face when they are denied contraceptive coverage.
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"Where are the women?" House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi asked when the hearing was brought up at a news conference. "The Republican leadership of this Congress thinks it's appropriate to have a hearing on women's health and purposely exclude women from the panel, she said. "I may at some point be moved to explain biology to my colleagues."
The original witness list contained only one woman, Oklahoma Christian University senior vice president Allison Dabbs Garrett. A second woman, Calvin College medical director Dr. Laura Champion, was added shortly before the hearing.
On the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., was pushing an amendment to a highway spending bill that would allow insurance plans to opt out of the mandate on contraception coverage if they have moral objections. The White House opposes the measure.