The House Judiciary Committee is the latest to hold a hearing on the contentious debate about an Obama administration mandate that religiously affiliated organizations, like all other employers, cover contraception in their employees' health plans.
Apparently responding to the public-relations misstep of a previous House committee, which invited an all-male panel to testify on the same question, the Tuesday hearing on "Executive Overreach: The HHS Mandate Versus Religious Liberty," included three women on its witness list. Two of the women testifying opposed the mandate. One woman, who chaired the Institute of Medicine panel that recommended the coverage requirement, defended it.
"The administration and its supporters have tried to cast this as a women's health issue to deflect attention away from the mandate's effect on religious freedom," Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said in his opening statement.
The ongoing legislative debate about contraception coverage has become a battle of perspectives, with opponents of the mandate casting it as an assault on religious liberty and its advocates focusing on access to women's health.
Republican legislators expressed their outrage on Tuesday about the lack of conscience exceptions in the Obama administration policy. Democrats questioned whether opponents' real motive was preventing women from using contraception.
"The arrogance of this administration is breathtaking, and I am hopeful that the courts will see this mandate for what is is--a blatant constitutional abuse of the first magnitude," said Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz.
"I fear that those who continue to object-–and so so despite the fact that their right to decline to participate in the provision of preventive contraceptive services has been respected--really seek to block women's access to contraceptive services altogether," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.
Although some religious groups have accepted the administration's promise to make insurance companies pay for birth-control services instead of religiously affiliated employers that object, witnesses said that the policy still forced many employers to violate their consciences.
Tuesday's hearing did not touch on specific legislation. But the Senate is set to vote on Thursday on a measure that would give employers the right to exclude any benefit they deem immoral. That bill, sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt, Mo., is expected to fail.
The Judiciary hearing lacked some of the fireworks displayed in the prior hearing on the subject, held by the House Oversight and Government Relations Committee. That hearing featured a shouting match and references to Stalin. Still the differences between the two sides were very clearly drawn, and there were some procedural squabbles and tough questions for the witnesses.
Several committee members questioned the motives of the witnesses. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., suggested that the kinds of conscience exceptions opponents were seeking could be used to protect discriminatory behavior.
"Some people just have as a matter of their inner soul racial discrimination," he said.
William Lori, the Catholic bishop of Bridgeport, Conn., said that his hope was for Congress to repeal the portion of the health care law that required insurance products to include certain services.
"The mandate to provide so-called preventive services should be rescinded," he said. "We think that’s the real way out of this."
A second witness, Amsa Uddin, similarly suggested that Congress pass a different law to avoid religious conflict.
"A law has to be narrowly tailored and it should not be intrusive," she said when asked by Nadler how she would balance the needs of religious groups with the desire to expand preventive health services through the health care law. "One way for the government to do that is to find another way."