UPDATE: The latest bomb in the culture war: The prelates, the president, and the pill

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UPDATE: A few more weighing in now on the HHS contraception mandate. Probably the most well-rounded is Grant Gallicho at Commonweal, who spins out lots of possibilities about why the O administration decided to go the route of extending the deadline for a year. Turns out 28 states already have a contraception mandate; it could be that the administration is leaving the door open either for a Supreme Court challenge or some legal way for employees of Catholic hospitals, for example, to provide the coverage without becoming morally implicated in it.

Michael Sean Winters, a self-professed liberal Democrat, says at NCR that this decision cost Obama Winters' vote. Ron Dreher, who blogs for The American Conservative, lays into Obama pretty hard. The only outlier, also at Commonweal, is from Eric Bugyis, who argues that it is the conscience rights of individual women who will be violated if they are not provided coverage for contraception.

I think it's clear that the Obama administration has made at least a political mistake in not expanding the exemption. They may lose in the courts anyway, but I think you could make an argument here to let the market decide. This will be a very popular benefit, and if a nurse has the option of working at another hospital where such coverage would be provided, I think he or she likely would. Just as Catholic colleges and universities have had to create some kind of equal benefits package for gay professors--to attract the best talent--the same may be true for hospitals or other Catholic institutions affected by this legislation.

I admit the bishops have a powerful issue here with religious liberty, but this contraceptive mandate seems like a strange hill to die on. Even if Catholic institutions are "forced" to pay for coverage of birth control pills, it remains up to individuals to purchase and/or use them. Is Catholic "religious liberty" predicated on the ability to prevent people who don't share our beliefs about contraception from having access to them through a workplace benefits packages? I'm not so sure.

ORIGINAL POST: Oh boy, oh boy: If the bishops weren't already locked and loaded for a fight about religious freedom, the Obama administration just handed them new ammunition. The Department of Health and Human Services issued an interim final rule today that requires Catholic organizations to include contraceptive coverage and sterilization in health plans for women, giving religious organizations a further year to comply. (Washington Post coverage here; AP here.) Archbishop of New York and U.S. bishops' conference president Timothy Dolan has already fired back, promising a fight in opposition to what Dolan calls an "edict."

No matter where you stand on the either moral issue of contraception or the policy issue of whether women should be able to get it without cost, this is going to be more than a tempest in a tea kettle, especially with an election looming. Clearly the administration has decided that what will certainly be a popular benefit for women of childbearing age is worth the political heat the Democrats will take from the bishops and Catholics opposed to contraception.

At the same time, the bishops have a powerful argument that Catholic organizations are going to be "forced" to pay for something church teaching considers immoral. Even if Catholics by and large disagree with the church's teaching on artificial forms of contraception, they may be convinced that the administration is indeed trampling on the conscience rights and religious freedom of those who do. The editors of Commonweal magazine, generally leaning to the left in matters of politics, counseled the administration to enlarge the religious exemption for this rule, which I think would have been the more politically wise decision.

The bishops have clearly chosen to make their stand on religious liberty swing on marriage and contraception; their opinions on these matters may be out of step with majorities of both Americans and Catholics (smaller majorities with the latter), but I don't think that's going to matter. The bishops have effectively changed the topic of debate to "religious freedom." We're clearly in an us-versus-them situation, and I don't see any way out. Someone is going to lose.