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U.S. Catholic Bishops Consider Next Move

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call
An amendment by Sen. Roy Blunt to roll back the mandate for religious institutions was supported by Catholic bishops, but the Senate rejected it.

About three dozen Catholic bishops who gathered in Washington, D.C., for a high-level meeting this week face a tough question in their ongoing standoff with President Barack Obama over contraception and health care: What’s next?

Having waded into a fight on Capitol Hill over federal health care mandates to cover the cost of birth control, the bishops essentially have two choices: confrontation or negotiation.

Both are on the table. Catholic leaders are weighing legal action, said a spokesman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Additional meetings with the administration also remain possible, but the fight over contraception mandates in the new health care law has become acrimonious and politically charged.

For the bishops, both options present risks. The fight over contraception mandates in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has spotlighted Catholic clout inside the Beltway, where the White House was forced to rewrite regulations in the new law to give religious providers of health care a layer of insulation from directly paying the cost of birth control as part of health care plans.

But the flare-up has also exposed rifts between the Catholic bishops and many Catholic institutions, as well as Catholic voters, who remain an unpredictable bloc.

The extent of the Catholic lobby is notoriously hard to measure, given exemptions in lobbying and IRS disclosure rules for religious institutions.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops spent about $26.7 million on advocacy and lobbying in 2009, an almost $1.4 million increase over 2008, according to the Pew Research Forum on Religion & Public Life.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops disputed that number, saying it was exaggerated. The study’s author acknowledged the challenge of pinning down an exact number but noted that the group’s total budget is about $143 million.

Whatever the bishops spend on advocacy and lobbying, there’s little question they’ve raised their Washington, D.C., profile and responded aggressively to the health care mandate. Last fall, the bishops set up a special Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, headed by Bridgeport, Conn., Bishop William Lori, who quickly became a popular GOP witness on Capitol Hill.

“It’s a much more orchestrated and efficient organization,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Health and Human Services regulations initially exempted houses of worship but not religious institutions such as hospitals and universities, prompting a nationwide outcry from the bishops. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and archbishop of New York, called the mandate “literally unconscionable.”

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