Got News? Sebelius unaware of religious liberty cases

Back in February, the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee held a hearing on religious liberty concerns arising from the new Health and Human Services mandate requiring religious employers to fund insurance plans that include drugs and services they morally oppose. This is an issue that has been boiling up since last year, but has suffered from poor coverage, which we've repeatedly detailed. One of the ways the media have botched this story is by couching it as a debate over contraception as opposed to a debate over religious freedom. While it's true that certain players in the battle do view it as a debate over contraception -- and that is a legitimate and worthwhile avenue for coverage -- it's also true that other players in the battle (who may not even care about contraception or generally approve of it) view this as as a religious liberty debate. That side of the story has suffered from weaker coverage.

When the House held that hearing on religious freedom a few months ago, two women testified -- Dr. Allison Dabbs Garrett, the senior vice-president for academic affairs at Oklahoma Christian University and Dr. Laura Champion, medical director of Calvin College Health Services. But because Democratic representatives staged a walkout before they spoke -- on the grounds that no women were speaking at a hearing on religious freedom contraception -- that's the meme that's been fully set. I noticed President Barack Obama made a joke at Saturday night's White House Correspondents' Dinner about the "contraception" hearing only featuring males (take that, Drs. Dabbs Garrett and Champion!).

Even though the hearing featured women who oppose the HHS mandate, the narrative that they don't exist and didn't testify was featured extensively and continues to dominate the message from that hearing. What wasn't covered nearly as well as their (fictional) absence from the hearing was what any of the people testifying at the hearing said. It has been a very, very, very frustrating experience for those of us who are expressing concern about the separation of church and state as it relates to the mandates of the massive health care legislation passed in 2010.

Moving forward, this past Friday HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testified before the U.S. House's Education and Workforce Committee, where she was questioned by Rep. Trey Gowdy, a Republican from South Carolina. In her statement, Sebelius made the claim that she had carefully considered religious liberty concerns and sought to balance them in the final regulations governing the mandate in question.

Gowdy asked her several questions about what she meant when she said she balanced religious liberty concerns. He explained to the former Kansas governor and husband of a judge that there are three tests for legal balance, depending on the issues under consideration. He explained that because religious liberty is considered a fundamental right in the United States, any decision that might violate it requires the strictest scrutiny.

While she was still under oath, Sebelius said that her careful consideration relied on the expertise of HHS' General Counsel, that no legal memo was ever written or at least provided to her on the topic, and that she was either unaware or unfamiliar with any of the significant cases related to religious liberty that have been decided by the Supreme Court.

There has been literally no mainstream media coverage of this rather telling testimony given under oath about one of the most pressing issues of religious freedom in our country. Now, if the HHS mandate -- which requires religious employers for the first time in history to fund insurance plans they morally oppose -- is about a "war on women," this lack of coverage could make sense, I guess. It certainly doesn't help advance the narrative that Sebelius was so ignorant of all these important issues surrounding religious freedom.

If this HHS mandate is, as its critics say, about a threat to religious liberty, this is extremely revealing testimony that should be covered.

What I'm trying to figure out is why the grandstanding silliness based on the completely erroneous claims that Dabbs Garrett and Champion don't exist and didn't testify back in February received so much coverage and why the faux-hearing based on Sandra Fluke's completely irrelevant testimony was live-streamed on CNN, for instance, while the actual remarks given by the actual people who testified at the religious liberty hearing were ignored and the actual remarks given by the actual Secretary of HHS are ignored.

Apart from over-covering anybody's grandstanding (and in this town, grandstanding is a lot of what happens no matter which side of the issue you're on), I'd like to see more substantive coverage both of the claims made regarding rights to free birth control and abortion drugs as well as the claims made regarding religious freedom.

The thing is that this substantive coverage of religious liberty concerns wouldn't mean that it would just be favorable to those who are fighting that side of the battle. Federal regulations are subject to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which relates to what Gowdy was talking about with strict scrutiny. While many think that the mandate would fail to meet the test of RFRA, it's certainly not a slam dunk. At the state level somewhat similar mandates have been upheld, largely on the strength of a Supreme Court decision authored by none other than Antonin Scalia. This is all super fascinating stuff but not stuff that you can talk about when you're giving a staged walkout of a hearing months of coverage while downplaying the actual legal battles that are being waged around these mandates.

Covering stunts is easy. Covering whether religious freedom concerns were given proper weight in the decision making process for this HHS mandate isn't as easy. But it's far more important, isn't it? And besides, reporting what an HHS Secretary has testified under oath at a public hearing isn't that difficult. Certainly a bunch of pro-life sites and Catholic agencies were able to do it within hours of the testimony. If media outlets need to hire some more people who speak the language of that half of the country that identifies as pro-life or whatever percentage care about religious freedoms being attacked here, it seems like that would be a good thing to do rather than miss major stories that are pretty easy to catch.

For what it's worth, here is the New York Sun editorial on the matter, which begins:

What a remarkable glimpse of the gulf between the administration and Congress over religious freedom is flashing around the internet. It is a Youtube video of the secretary of health and human services, Kathleen Sebelius, at a hearing of the House Education and Workforce Committee hearing. She is being grilled by a Republican congressman of South Carolina, Trey Gowdy. He asks her about her a statement she has made about seeking a balance between believer’s rights and the contraception mandate. What becomes clear is that there is no feel for, no thought about, but glancing attention to the Constitution the secretary is sworn to support.

And if you'd like a more comprehensive write-up of what happened, here is the Catholic News Agency's take, which is helpful.

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