President Obama speaks on religious liberty, contraception, and fairness

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During the U.S. bishops' high profile "religious freedom" campaign and the rash of lawsuits filed by the church against the federal government, the Obama administration has mostly remained silent on the controversy surrounding the church's opposition to health care coverage requirements that include contraception. But one TV reporter was able to get a very candid response from the president that offered some insight into his thinking on the issue.

In a brief five-minute interview, Karen Swensen of New Orleans station WWL-TV pressed President Obama on the issue by reading to him a question from a Catholic voter: "What can you say about a healthcare bill that’ll mandate insurance companies to provide birth control, sterilization, etc. to employees of Catholic universities, hospitals and churches since this goes against the Catholic religion?" Swensen acknowledged the White House's compromise but suggested that "it doesn’t go far enough" and added that church leaders argue "that the real, the much bigger issue is religious liberty, not contraception.”

Obama didn't mix words in his response, taking on these accusations and explaining his thinking on the issue:

"Well it’s absolutely true that religious liberty is critical. I mean that’s what our country was founded on. That’s the reason why we exempted churches, we exempted religious institutions, but we did say that big Catholic hospitals or universities who employ a lot of non-Catholics and who receive a lot of federal money, that for them to be in a position to say to a woman who works there you can’t get that from your insurance company even though the institution isn’t paying for it, that that crosses the line where that woman, she suddenly is gonna have to bear the burden and the cost of that. And that’s not fair.”

In the president's mind, there appears to be a clear distinction between a purely religious entity and an institution that has both secular and religious ties, such as a hospital founded on Catholic values that also accepts federal funding.

It would be helpful though if he could clarify his thinking on what constitutes "a lot" of non-Catholic employees, as it would clear up some confusion about who would and would not qualify for an exemption. Some church leaders have twisted this provision to suggest that if a church organization has even one non-Catholic employee they would fail to qualify for an exemption, but that doesn't seem to be how the president sees things. But does "a lot" mean that more than 10 percent of their employees are non-Catholic? More than 50 percent? No one really knows for sure, though I imagine that's been left intentionally vague to allow requests for exemption to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Obama's other assertions--namely that the employer doesn't bear the actual cost of the contraceptives and that it is unfair for employers to place an undue burden on employees--will surely be heavily criticized. In fact, those points have already been debated at great length, and nothing the president says now will likely change anyone's mind.

What is worth noting is Obama's use of the word "fair." He makes clear that religious freedom is in fact important to him, and so are the rights of religious employers. But he also wants the law to take into account the rights of workers and their needs, and his goal is to strike a "fair" balance between the two sides that will not infringe upon anyone's rights. Whether or not you think he's succeeded in doing so, it at least sounds like a fair way of approaching a highly contentious issue.

Below is a video of Swensen's complete interview with Obama, which also includes questions about his proposal on tax cuts for Americans making less than $250,000 a year and his efforts to turn around the economy.