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Catholic Church pushes, and some push back

After abortion victory in the House, bishops make their case as Senate gets ready to vote

By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / November 21, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Representative Louise Slaughter has a consistent record advocating abortion rights. So the New York Democrat was stunned recently to receive, for the first time, a letter from a Catholic diocese in western New York, demanding that she explain her vote this month against a health care amendment prohibiting insurance companies from paying for abortions.

“I’m not Catholic. But they [asked] me to explain myself,’’ said Slaughter, who has not answered the request.

Slaughter, whose district includes heavily Catholic Buffalo, said she is also upset with what she considers the church’s heavy-handed promotion of the amendment on Capitol Hill and its insistence that final legislative language in the landmark bill to expand insurance coverage meet with the approval of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. After a request by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who favors abortion rights, the bishops quickly produced a letter before the Nov. 7 House vote assuring antiabortion Democrats that the provision was acceptable to the church hierarchy.

Some lawmakers see the church’s Capitol Hill maneuvering over the health care bill as part of a broader activist push, which some welcome and others find worrisome.

But Don Clemmer, a spokesman for the bishops conference, said the church is merely stating its long-held views on issues at the core of its mission. He said the church’s advocacy over abortion on Capitol Hill is getting more attention now because health care is such a prominent national issue.

The aftershocks from the abortion collision are being felt well beyond the halls of Congress. The restrictions in the House-passed bill have emerged as a major issue in the Democratic Senate race in Massachusetts, with Attorney General Martha Coakley, Representative Michael Capuano, and Boston Celtics co-owner Stephen G. Pagliuca sparring over whether they would vote against the entire bill because of the abortion language.

And some see signs of a new church activism in other recent controversies. Representative Patrick Kennedy, Democrat of Rhode Island, has become a recent target of Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin because of the Catholic congressman’s views on abortion. In the District of Columbia, the Catholic Archdiocese has threatened to end some of its charitable services if the City Council passes a gay-marriage provision that the archdiocese fears will force it to provide housing, health care, education, and other services to same-sex couples.

Some lawmakers are pushing back.

“I absolutely think they’re being more present’’ in politics, said Representative Lynn Woolsey, a California Democrat. “I think they overstepped their influence.’’

The Senate is the next arena in the abortion debate. The health care overhaul bill unveiled this week by majority leader Harry Reid would ban coverage of abortion under a government-sponsored public health insurance option. But it does not meet the stricter House ban, which also prohibits coverage by any private insurance plan whose clients receive government-subsidized insurance under the healthcare expansion.

Antiabortion forces say the tougher House language is necessary to ensure no public funds are used to pay for abortions, a ban that is written in law. But Slaughter and others say that language adopted in the House will prevent women from getting abortion coverage even if they are paying premiums largely out of their own pocket.

With the Senate scheduled to conduct a key procedural vote today on its own health care plan, the bishops yesterday sent a letter to senators demanding the insertion of the stronger House provision.

“As pastors and teachers, we believe genuine health care reform must protect human life and dignity, not threaten them. Sadly, the legislative proposal recently unveiled in the Senate does not meet these moral criteria,’’ the bishops’ letter said.

And while the three-page letter also underscored the church’s moral commitment to universal health care, it made the tougher abortion language a litmus test for its support of the entire health care package.

“We believe legislation that violates this moral principle is not true health care reform and must be amended to reflect it. If that fails, the current legislation should be opposed,’’ said the letter. The church leaders’ lobbying is forcing Catholic and non-Catholic members of Congress to tiptoe around issues of personal faith and public policy while trying to avoid the ire of a powerful religious constituency.

Capuano and Representatives Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Dennis Kucinich of Ohio - all favor abortion rights - said they drew from their faith a commitment to help the poor and advance peace.

Antiabortion lawmakers said their personal faith is part of their value system as members of Congress, and they welcomed the forceful advocacy by the church.

“I’m glad the bishops are speaking out on this; it’s so important to the nation,’’ said Representative Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican who converted to Catholicism as an adult. Democratic Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Republican Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi both said they hadn’t heard from clergy back home. “They don’t have to,’’ Nelson said, since they know how he will vote.

The church has long had a unique power on Capitol Hill, eliciting a deference from Catholics and non-Catholics alike that is not afforded to other religion-focused lobbies or to ideological groups like the American Civil Liberties Union or the National Rifle Association. Lobbyists who show up in “fancy suits’’ and wingtip shoes simply do not command the same reaction as lobbyists in clerical collars, Woolsey said. Further, the bishops - like officials in all religions who lobby the Hill - are not required to file the lobbying disclosures other interest groups must complete, noted Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“There’s just something that doesn’t smell right about this wealthy, powerful entity being able to write the laws that everyone, Catholic and non-Catholic, has to live under,’’ Lynn said.

Lawmakers say they try to seek a balance between their personal faith and obligation to their constituents.

Capuano, explaining his defiance of church leaders with his vote against the Nov. 7 abortion amendment, said: “I treat them with probably more respect, more deference. But they don’t tell me how to vote.’’