President accused of breaking Notre Dame 'conscience' pledge

President Barack Obama CNA US Catholic News 11 18 11 President Barack Obama

Obama administration critics say the president misled his religious supporters in a 2009 Notre Dame speech, in which he supported conscience protections and “common ground” on issues like abortion.

“Two and a half years after President Obama was given an honorary degree at America’s flagship Catholic University and delivered its commencement address, at least we have clarity,” wrote Kansas Catholic Conference Director Michael Schuttloffel, in a Nov. 13 column.

“Willful blindness regarding this Administration’s true intentions is no longer possible,” wrote Schuttloffel, who highlighted conflict between the moderate tone of Obama's Notre Dame commencement speech and his administration's policies.

Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson voiced similar concerns in a Nov. 14 column. He accused the president, who courted the Catholic vote in the 2008 election, of “(turning) his back on Catholics.”

“The conscience protections of Catholics are under assault, particularly by the Department of Health and Human Services,” wrote Gerson. “And Obama’s Catholic strategy is in shambles.”

Both writers urged their readers to compare President Obama's words at Notre Dame with his later actions.

In his May 2009 speech, President Obama expressed a desire to “work through these conflicts” over issues like abortion and stem cells, in order to “join hands in common effort.”

“Maybe we won't agree on abortion,” the president proposed. “Let's honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women.”

Schuttloffel compared the president's invitation to Notre Dame, and his moderate tone there, to the legendary “Trojan Horse” of Greek mythology – a giant, hollow statue presented as a peace offering from the opposing army, with legions of soldiers waiting within.

“The folly of those Catholics who issued and defended that invitation, like the Trojans who wheeled the great wooden horse inside their city walls, has been laid bare,” the Kansas Catholic Conference director stated.

He indicated that the administration's contraceptive mandate, which includes at least one abortion-causing drug, made a mockery of the president's talk about “trying to find common ground” with pro-life advocates.

“With the eager assistance of old friends at Planned Parenthood, Health and Human Services Secretary (Kathleen) Sebelius recently unveiled a list of 'preventive services' that all private and public health plans will eventually be required to provide,” Schuttloffel noted.

“It includes contraceptives, sterilization, and even the abortifacient 'Ella,' which has the capacity to end a pregnancy after fertilization.”

“Because the new policy prohibits copays or deductibles for these “services,” they will for provided for 'free,'” Schuttloffel pointed out. “Which means they will be paid for with the premiums and taxes of people who do not use these services and who object to them.”

In his Washington Post column, Gerson compared the president's past praise of conscience rights, with his administration's choice to cut funding from the U.S. Catholic bishops' work against human trafficking.

On Jan. 12, 2009 – eight days before President Obama's inauguration – the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Department of Health and Human Services over its work with the U.S. bishops' Migration and Refugee Services.

The ACLU accused the government agency of setting up “an establishment of religion” by funding the Catholic humanitarian program, which did not refer women for abortion or contraception.

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In October 2011, the Obama administration cut funding for the highly-rated program, after declaring it would give preference to programs offering “the full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care.”

“This was described by one official as 'standard procedure,'” wrote Gerson.

“So it is now standard procedure in the Obama administration to deny funding to some Catholic programs based solely on their pro-life beliefs.”

At Notre Dame, Obama promoted a “presumption of good faith” between those on opposite sides of the abortion debate. “When we open our hearts and our minds to those who may not think like we do or believe what we do,” he said, “that's when we discover at least the possibility of common ground. “

At an October 2011 Chicago fundraiser, however, the president's Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said she was “in a war” against political opponents who “want to roll back the last 50 years in progress women have made in comprehensive health care in America.”

“This is no longer the 'presumption of good faith,'” noted Gerson, who said the Obama appointee had shown “all the hallmarks of a vendetta” against the pro-life movement.

Schuttloffel said the contraceptive mandate's “so-called religious exemption” signals the Obama administration's true policy toward religious groups.

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He called the narrow exemption the “most insidious aspect” of the Health and Human Services Department rules, since it “only applies to religious employers that have the inculcation of religious values as their purpose, and that employ and serve people who share their religious beliefs.” 

“It will therefore not apply to Catholic universities, hospitals, and charitable organizations that serve the general public,” Schuttloffel noted.

“This is of a piece with the Obama Administration’s various efforts to define religious freedom down to mean nothing more than the freedom to worship in private. The broad, two-centuries old understanding of the First Amendment’s guarantee of 'free exercise' is being eviscerated.”

“Under the new policy, religious institutions are only rewarded with a religious exemption if they restrict their activities to worship,” the Kansas Catholic Conference director observed.

“But if they function as full participants in society, bringing their faith to bear on public life through education, health care, and advocacy, they will then be forced to provide medical services they find deeply immoral.”

At Notre Dame's 2009 commencement, President Obama praised the university's students for “service … performed at schools and hospitals; international relief agencies and local charities.” He described such works as “incredibly impressive, and a powerful testament to this institution.”

But now, Schuttloffel indicated, the president's own policies endanger religious work in these areas.

“A new, circumscribed understanding of religious liberty is being implemented, by fiat, by those who reject religion’s legitimate contribution to the public square,” the conference director warned.

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