Frame game: Mere politics? Just birth control?

The frame game continues, with a coalition of conservative religious groups -- the traditionalist wings of most major religious groups -- insisting that their battle with the Obama White House is not essentially about birth control, but about religious liberty and the separation of church and state. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, of course, says the battle is about birth control and quality health care. How is the press playing this, now that the president has offered up a compromise that supposedly exempts churches and other religious institutions (think explicitly religious colleges and hospitals) from having to pay for things that they consider evil?

The Washington Post second-day story contains a classic passage that shows precisely how not to cover this kind of complex issue, which has deep roots into religious doctrine as well as Constitutional law.

Read carefully. The lede states:

After initially telegraphing optimism about President Obama’s decision Friday to amend the religious exemption for mandatory birth-control and sterilization coverage, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has declared total opposition to any compromise on the issue.

Then here is the crunch section:

The bishops’ broadside is evidence that Obama’s effort to limit the damage from this unusually complicated moral, legal, medical and financial issue isn’t necessarily working. Most of the Republican presidential candidates have hammered Obama for what they contend is a trampling of religious freedom. Even many of the president’s supporters believe that the original exemption was too narrow and the policymaking handled clumsily -- although they supported the amendment announced Friday.

An administration official not authorized to speak on the record expressed little surprise at the bishops’ statement, which if anything represents a hardening of their position.

“We never anticipated that this announcement would win the endorsement of an organization that opposed health reform from the very beginning,” the official said. “But we believe it’s the right way to fully address concerns about religious liberty and ensure women get the coverage they need.”

Where to begin?

The key for me is that the religious-liberty dispute has been building behind the scenes -- ignored by the press, for the most part -- for several years now. Even the GOP candidates have been very, very late to the game.

So, on one level, it is true that: "Most of the Republican presidential candidates have hammered Obama for what they contend is a trampling of religious freedom." But that is almost beside the point. The key to the whole dispute is that a wide variety of religious groups considered the HHS mandate the straw that broke this particular church-state camel's back.

From the point of view of the religious groups, this is not about election-year horse racing. For them, it matters little that GOP candidates "contend" that this dispute is about religious liberty. Who cares what the GOP candidates "contend"? What matters is the end game, the court cases that are already being ramped up in this church-state clash.

At some point, journalists need to realize that, in the end, there is more to this issue than political gamesmanship. There are Constitutional issues to settle. Also, it is clear that there is a battle going on inside the structures of Catholicism in America and, yes, the Obama administration is not going to be able to please both Pope Benedict XVI and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

Here are some key issues to look for in the ongoing coverage:

* Will reporters continue to say that the "religious liberty" issue is mere political spin? Perhaps it's time to call Constitutional scholars on both sides of this dispute.

* In the fine print, how will the Obama compromise deal with the large number of churches and religious groups that self-insure, that provide their own health coverage? Will this option be (a) banned or (b) will they simply be required to provide contraceptives, sterilization procedures, morning-after pills, etc., etc.?

* At some point, people are going to have to pay attention to the war cries inside the Southern Baptist Convention and other conservative Protestant groups. If this story is just about birth control, why are so many believers in other camps just as upset as the Catholics? Meanwhile, has the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said anything yet?

* Does the Obama compromise have teeth when it comes time to prevent health-insurance companies from simply raising their rates, thus passing the birth-control buck right back to the churches, religious colleges, hospitals, etc.?

* Do the new, new HHS rules still separate "churches" that worship from non-profit religious institutions that merely feed the poor, teach children, care for the elderly and all of that "non-religious" stuff? In the past, courts have frowned on government attempts to say that freedom of worship is different than freedom of religion. Well, courts in America have frowned on that. Courts in the People's Republic of China? That's another matter.

In conclusion, it's clear that tempers are rising on both sides.

For example, did you catch that anonymous Post quote from inside the Obama team? This one:

“We never anticipated that this announcement would win the endorsement of an organization that opposed health reform from the very beginning,” the official said.

Oh my. Has there been any major group in American life that has been more consistent in its calls -- for decades now -- for universal health-care reform than the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops? Hey, I realize that the Post is not responsible for the accuracy of a quotation from a source. I'm just saying that it would be nice to allow someone on the other side to respond to that kind of verbal stab.

Stay tuned.

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