Frame game: Birth control vs. religious liberty, again

At this point, the media storm about Health and Human Services story is growing and becoming more complex. Once again, the goal here at GetReligion is to focus on the mainstream news coverage of the emerging story lines.

At the moment, the main framing device in the news and commentary in the mainstream press remains the same. It looks something like this:

(1) The White House says this is a story about birth control and women's health. Thus, this is a story about birth-control debates between a small number of traditional Catholics and the rest of the nation, including most Catholics.

(2) The nasty Catholic bishops and GOP candidates are attempting to frame this story as a battle over the First Amendment and religious liberty -- but that's just politics, not doctrine. In other words, that's mere right-wing political spin.

(3) Thus, the vast majority of news reports are framing this as a birth-control battle, perhaps with a few conservative voices thrown into the mix. Many journalists, it seems, have decided that even mentioning "religious liberty" and related Constitutional issues is forbidden, since that would raise the issue of whether religious traditionalists in all faiths have a valid point worthy of fair and accurate coverage. The "religious liberty" nuts are sort of the flat-earth people in this scenario.

The problem is, lots and lots of people -- liberal Catholics and most Protestants -- who are not opposed to common forms of birth control are very upset about these HHS rules. Check out this blockbuster, cover-our-tails piece from Bloomberg.

Then, after reading that, move on to this, which includes some of the most pointed language that I have seen on the Catholic left, care of Michael Sean Winters at The National Catholic Reporter:

Yes, I want a solution to this mess. But, I also want a victory by which I mean I want a really robust conscience exemption. I want any change by the White House not only to work in terms of resolving this issue but to send a clear and unambiguous statement that in this great diverse, pluralistic country of ours, there is room for us Catholics to be Catholic, with all of our quirks, and that the government recognizes that they have no business telling religious organizations what their mission is or how to manage it. I do not want the White House to cry “uncle” for the sake of crying uncle. But, when somebody punches me in the nose, and when someone punches my friends Sr. Carol Keehan and Father John Jenkins and countless others in the nose, I am not going to rush to make nice with them either. There needs to be an apology. And the President needs to go to the pro-choice caucus and explain that their stance imperils the entire Affordable Care Act, both politically and legally, and without that, they would not be discussing extending contraception to anyone.

Make no mistake about it - those who support denying Catholic institutions a more robust exemption have placed their commitment to pro-choice orthodoxy above their commitment to health care reform. Is that progressive? Is that something progressive Catholics, who fought so hard to pass the ACA, want to defend? It is time for so-called progressive Catholics to stop serving as chaplains to the political status quo and recognize a first principle when they see one. It is time for Catholics to insist that a conscience exemption that only applies to religion on Sunday and no help for the poor unless they are also Catholic is no conscience exemption at all.

Of course, it's easy to ask: Why do religious groups need a conscience clause when they have the First Amendment, when they have a history of church-state law that says the government does not have the power to get entangled in doctrinal issues of this kind? The state does not have the right to say that "religion" is when people sit in pews, but not when they feed the poor, teach children and heal the sick -- in institutions that are explicitly and meaningfully connected to religious traditions, laws and doctrines.

As I have said before, this is an argument about the separation of church and state, one rooted in the old liberalism that fiercely defended freedom of speech (and the press, by the way), freedom of association and freedom of religion.

So if Winters, Vice President Joe Biden, Chris Matthews, Cardinal Roger Mahony and flocks of other Catholic progressives -- if the old liberals, in other words -- see this as a religious liberty issue, what should one call the following point of view from a major journalist who all but dismisses the First Amendment claims?

This aggressive claiming of the moral high ground is close to drowning out the regulation’s supporters, inside and outside of the Obama administration. Maybe I’m missing something, but I haven’t seen a comparably full-throated defense of the regulation, issued last month by the Department of Health and Human Services, except on pure policy grounds. (And there are indications this week that even some in the administration, or at least in President Obama’s campaign apparatus, may be getting cold feet.) While the policy grounds are fully persuasive -- the ability to prevent or space pregnancy being an essential part of women’s health care, one that shouldn’t be withheld simply because a woman’s employer is church-affiliated -- the purpose of this column is to examine the conscience claim itself, directly, to see whether it holds up.

An obvious starting point is with the 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women who, just like other American women, have exercised their own consciences and availed themselves of birth control at some point during their reproductive lives. So it’s important to be clear that the conscientious objection to the regulation comes from an institution rather than from those whose consciences it purports to represent. (Catholic women actually have a higher rate of abortion than other American women, but I’ll stick to birth control for now.) While most Catholics dissent in the privacy of their bedrooms from the church’s position, some are pushing back in public. The organization Catholics for Choice, whose magazine is pointedly entitled Conscience, is calling on its supporters to “tell our local media that the bishops are out of touch with the lived reality of the Catholic people” and “do not speak for us on this decision.”

That, of course, is the voice of Linda Greenhouse of The New York Times -- perhaps the most influential reporter who has ever covered the U.S. Supreme Court.

Is this, perhaps, the voice of the establishment media in the prestigious offices on high? Is this the voice charged with deciding who is a good Catholic and who is a bad Catholic, in the eyes of the government and, almost as important, the Times?

Greenhouse has, of course, spoken out these kinds of cultural, legal and religious issues before. Remember her famous sermon at Radcliffe about the values of the '60s, which caused heat at NPR and then at the Times? The one that said:

... (We) were absolutely united in one conviction: the belief that in future decades, if the world lasted that long, when our turn came to run the country, we wouldn’t make the same mistakes. Our generation would do a better job. I cried that night in the Simon and Garfunkel concert out of the realization that my faith had been misplaced. We were not doing a better job. We had not learned from the old mistakes. Our generation had not proved to be the solution. We were the problem.

And of course my little crying jag occurred before we knew the worst of it, before it was clear the extent to which our government had turned its energy and attention away from upholding the rule of law and toward creating law-free zones at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Haditha, and other places around the world. And let’s not forget the sustained assault on women’s reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism.

My point, again, is not who is wrong and who is right in this journalism puzzle.

Thus, my point is not that the "religious liberty" camp should be covered and the "birth control" arguments ignored. In fact, I will say this again: There is no way to cover this story without hitting the birth-control angle and hitting it hard. There is no way to cover this story without covering its political angles.

From a journalistic perspective, this is not doctrine vs. politics. It's both-and. This is not "religious liberty" vs. the sexual revolution. It's both-and. The journalistic framing in this story must take seriously the line (currently) coming out of the White House and the voices of observant Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Orthodox Jews, evangelical Protestants and others who believe that the U.S. government is trying to punish those who refuse to edit centuries of tradition and law in order to conform to Caesar. (By the way, have any church groups officially spoken out to back the White House on this?)

Now, let's use the comments pages to share the URLs for hard-news stories and other commentaries that attempt this "both-and" approach to framing this story -- an old school, journalistic, old-liberalism approach. You can start right here, with this new essay by the progressive Catholic scribe David Gibson, writing for Religion News Service.

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