Pod people: Birth control or religious liberty?

Finally. I think someone may have had a journalistic epiphany on the whole Health and Human Services thing.

But before we go there, stop and, for a moment, join me in contemplating the following journalism puzzle.

The Obama administration's new HHS regulations -- click here for a sample of GetReligion coverage -- continue to cause an electric buzz here inside the Beltway. At the moment, people continue to focus on the Catholic angle of this story.

That's logical. I get that. I mean, why would a Democratic candidate want to tick off Pope Benedict XVI in what will almost certainly be a tense election year?

Keep thinking. If this battle over the HHS rules is merely a "Catholic" story, it's logical to think that it is essentially a story about birth control. This logic has been leading reporters to another semi-logical conclusion. They're thinking: Most Catholics use birth control. Thus, most Catholics are not going to care about the HHS rules. The pope and the bishops are all just blowing smoke and this story is no big deal -- other than to a few crazy Catholics (none in the typical newsroom, naturally) who actually care about church doctrines about sexuality.

However, if this is simply a story about birth control, logical journalists will need to figure out why so many liberal Catholics are currently so upset with the White House for picking this fight at this moment in time.

This leads us to the fact that U.S. bishops and the pope see this as a battle over issues much bigger than birth control. They see these rules as a direct attack on the religious liberty of Catholics and other believers. They see this as a First Amendment story in which the government is forcing religious groups -- the institutions, not individual believers -- to commit or fund acts that are sinful and evil, according to the doctrines proclaimed by these religious groups.

Seen from this angle, the ruling on birth control is simply the point on a much larger spear. The next thing you know, the U.S. Justice Department will be trying to get involved in decisions about who is hired and fired by religious groups. Wait a minute. That sounds familiar.

Please hear me say that there is no way to cover this story without hitting the birth-control angle and hitting it hard. However, there is no accurate, balanced way to handle this story without covering the larger religious-liberty angle, as well.

I also know that the potential impact of the HHS rules IS HUGE when you look at the Catholic numbers. What percentage of the nation's health care (especially for the poor) is provided by institutions with Catholic roots or ties? Then there is the fact that the nation contains nearly 250 allegedly Catholic colleges and universities. This is big stuff, folks.

The big question for journalists is this: Which angle frames the story? Which drives the coverage?

So stop and think. If this is primarily a story about birth control, then it's safe to say that only pro-Vatican Catholics will be screaming bloody murder these days. But that isn't the case, is it? Instead, leaders in a wide variety of religious groups are mad as hades, because they see the larger legal picture. They are asking: Is America a place in which people have freedom of worship or freedom of religion?

Finally, I think that we have a national-level story that has found a way to frame this story accurately.

Here is the top of religion-beat veteran Rachel Zoll's report for the Associated Press:

The Obama administration's decision requiring church-affiliated employers to cover birth control was bound to cause an uproar among Roman Catholics and members of other faiths, no matter their beliefs on contraception.

The regulation, finalized a week ago, raises a complex and sensitive legal question: Which institutions qualify as religious and can be exempt from the mandate?

For a church, mosque or synagogue, the answer is mostly straightforward. But for the massive network of religious-run social service agencies there is no simple solution. Federal law lays out several criteria for the government to determine which are religious. But in the case of the contraception mandate, critics say Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius chose the narrowest ones. Religious groups that oppose the regulation say it forces people of faith to choose between upholding church doctrine and serving the broader society.

"It's not about preventing women from buying anything themselves, but telling the church what it has to buy, and the potential for that to go further," said Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, representing some 600 hospitals.

Keehan's support for the passage of the Obama health care overhaul was critical in the face of intense opposition by the U.S. bishops. She now says the narrowness of the religious exemption in the birth control mandate "has jolted us." She pledged to use a one-year grace period the administration has provided to "pursue a correction."

I am bringing all of this up, again, for a logical reason (or two).

For starters, it will not surprise regular listeners of our "Crossroads" podcast that this issue was the subject of this week's discussion. You can find it at iTunes or simply click here to listen online. However, the main reason we talked this through -- again -- is that this story is not going away. Instead, it's taking on a life of its own on op-ed pages and in news reports (and not just because GOP types think it's a nice reason to wound the White House).

Oh, we also spent a few minutes discussing that whole GetReligion turns eight thing.

Enjoy the podcast.

Please respect our Commenting Policy