'This Law Is Saying We Are No Longer Free'


February 02, 2012

The Obama administration has announced a requirement under the health-care law that insurance plans at religious organizations, including Roman Catholic colleges, must cover all government-approved contraceptives. Religious institutions will have until August 2013 to comply with the rule. In the meantime, the law's opponents, like Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, are mobilizing against what they see as an attack on their institutions. Following is an edited version of his conversation with The Chronicle.

Q. Why are you opposed to this new rule?

A. First, I want to affirm the importance of women's health and the prevention of disease. That's important for all Americans and all people in higher education. The challenge here is that Catholic colleges see themselves as religious institutions. Therefore, we view this law as an unconstitutional way to advance a noble goal, in this case, women's health. It goes against this country's gift to the world, which is freedom of conscience. And it's directly in contradiction with our core values as a society; that's significant for us.

Q. The report that the Obama administration cited in making this rule says that providing birth control may reduce unintended pregnancies and abortions. Does your group disagree with that finding?

A. Regardless of what the science says, people of faith need to be able to have the religious freedom to pay for what they want and what they don't want. This issue, at its root, is a religious-liberty issue. It's not a Catholic issue; it's an issue for any person of faith. It's the first time in history that the federal government is legislating or prioritizing something over religious liberty.

Q. Don't many people at Catholic colleges simply seek birth control elsewhere? Doesn't that water down the authority of those institutions?

A. Not at all. This country is built on the fact that people are free to choose. It falls to the religious group to make their case in the public arena about what they believe is the best way to live a life. People need to be free—that is what conscience is about—to be able to follow those dictates. We affirm that right for them to be free to choose. And we should also be free to choose. This law is saying we are no longer free, that we don't have a choice. We are paying for things that we don't believe in.

Q. How do you plan to organize in opposition to this regulation?

A. We're going to keep looking at this law to find a way we might proceed in good conscience. But I think that's unlikely. In fact, I've found no one faith-based community who sees a way to move forward on this. We're going to ask Congress, "Can you step in and rescript this ruling to focus on what its real essence is—women's health—while keeping religious liberty intact?" If that's not persuasive, then we'll take this to the courts, and lawsuits are already getting lined up. Eventually the Supreme Court may hear this. All three strategies are at work right now, and I think they'll continue unfolding over at least the next 12 months.