Democrats are "fighting a war on religious liberty," U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz told the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 16, 2013.
In his keynote speech at the event (commonly known as CPAC) held annually by the American Conservative Union, the Texas Republican equated current events to Democrats telling the Catholic Church, "Change your religious beliefs or we'll use our power in the federal government to shut down your charities and your hospitals."
Reading that as a reference to the administration of President Barack Obama, we asked Cruz’s office for backup information.
Cruz spokesman Sean Rushton, saying Cruz also was referring to congressional Democrats who voted for the health care overhaul known as Obamacare, emailed us links and articles from conservative and religious sources criticizing government decisions on how churches and affiliated organizations are to comply with the law’s mandate that insurance plans cover preventive care -- including an administration interpretation that this includes birth control without employees paying any out-of-pocket costs.
None of the articles Rushton sent, though, showed Democrats or the government saying they would shut down churches’ hospitals or charities for failing to comply.
A Feb. 10, 2012, PolitiFact story gave the backdrop: 2010’s health care overhaul required most health plans to cover recommended "preventive health services" without co-pays or deductibles. But the law left to the administration to decide which women’s health services to include.
In August 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services ruled that insurance plans would have to cover sterilization and all birth control approved by the Food and Drug Administration, from condoms to hormone shots to "morning-after" pills, starting in August 2012 at the earliest.
But according to Catholic precepts, contraception is against moral law. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says that if contraceptives must be offered without a co-pay, that means the cost is spread among employers and all insured employees -- meaning that Catholics would end up paying for birth control.
Those rules were finalized in 2012, and more changes have been proposed as of 2013, amid much public debate.
In the 2012 rules, which are still in force, the government exempted some religious employers and gave them a year’s grace period before the requirements took effect.
To qualify for the "religious employer" exemption, a group had to be a nonprofit that served and employed people who shared its religious tenets and had as its purpose inculcating religious values.
But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the governing body of the Catholic Church in this country, said that definition was too narrow because it ruled out many universities, hospitals and charitable groups, such as those that serve non-Catholics.
Changes that the government proposed Feb. 1, 2013, would widen the definition of "religious employer" and, according to a Reuters news story posted that day, require that arrangements be made for people who work for self-insured religious organizations to get contraception coverage through private insurers.
Rushton said the proposal did not go far enough and sent us material from the conservative Heritage Foundation including a Feb. 9, 2013, article saying that the "so-called fix would only apply to certain religious nonprofit organizations, leaving many others — such as business owners, individuals, and non-religious nonprofits — without any recourse from the mandate."
Bishops’ spokeswoman Sister Mary Ann Walsh told us by email that "massive fines for non-compliance" would force some groups to close, and the proposed changes would not fix the situation.
"If they fail to provide coverage for contraception or sterilization in their health plans," Walsh wrote, "they’re subject to an assessment of $100 a day per employee. ... And if they drop their health plans to avoid the mandate, they’re subject to an annual penalty of $2,000 per employee," she wrote, citing the sections of U.S. law that spell out the fines: 26 U.S.C. § 4980D(b) and 26 U.S.C. § 4980H(a), (c)(1).
"For a lot of nonprofit entities, such fines could run in the millions of dollars and would render their operations unsustainable," Walsh said.
She did not give instances of the government threatening to directly close an institution. We searched for such communication to the church and came up empty.
New York’s archbishop, Timothy Dolan, said in a Feb. 9, 2012, "CBS This Morning" interview that Obama had backed down from promises made during a November 2011 meeting at the White House.
For his part, Obama said his administration sought to protect religious freedom with its rules for carrying out the mandate.
The president said in a Feb. 10, 2012, press conference:
I spoke directly to various Catholic officials, and I promised that before finalizing the rule as it applied to them, we would spend the next year working with institutions like Catholic hospitals and Catholic universities to find an equitable solution that protects religious liberty and ensures that every woman has access to the care that she needs.
… The result will be that religious organizations won’t have to pay for these services, and no religious institution will have to provide these services directly.
Dolan wrote in a March 2, 2012, letter to fellow bishops that "the (p)resident announced that the insurance providers would have to pay the bill, instead of the (c)hurch’s schools, hospitals, clinics, or vast network of charitable outreach having to do so.... since a big part of our ministries are ‘self-insured,’ we still ask how this protects us."
White House staff, Dolan wrote, told bishops’ conference staffers that reconsidering the mandate and widening the exemption were off the table.
Cruz’s spokesman, Rushton, said companies facing similar contraception-providing requirements have sued and gotten injunctions delaying their fines. But once those delays and the religious groups’ grace period expire, he said, "unless they win in court or the mandate is changed, these institutions will be fined out of existence."
When we inquired, White House spokesman Eric Schultz didn’t speak directly to Cruz’s claim that government shutdowns had been threatened, but he emailed materials including a Catholic Health Association release issued Feb. 13, 2013, that said the group of nonprofit health systems was pleased with the new definition of "religious employer" and called the changes "substantial progress." Schultz also sent a Feb. 1, 2013, press release from the nonprofit advocacy group Catholics United that said the changes were a victory for the Catholic church.
Alternately, Rushton said, "The idea is, such organizations may choose to cease certain activities rather than violate their conscience." He sent us a Feb. 28, 2012, news story from the conservative Cybercast News Service that quoted the Chicago archbishop, Cardinal Francis George, predicting his area’s Catholic hospitals and health care institutions would close within two years. At that time, George said, he saw four choices: turn secular, pay "exorbitant" fines that are "not economically sustainable," sell out to a non-Catholic operator or shut down.
Cruz, alluding to Obamacare’s contraception insurance coverage mandate, said Democrats told the Catholic Church they would use federal powers to shut down its charities and hospitals if the church doesn’t change its beliefs.
We found no sign of such a statement -- or anything close.
The Catholic bishops have said that potential accumulated fines resulting from refusals to carry out the contraception mandate will cause some institutions to shut down.
Perhaps. However, such prospects do not reflect a direct threat from Democrats or the government. To the contrary, the administration has moved to widen the mandate’s exemption for religious employers and provide a workaround for those who act as their own insurance providers -- with the goal of allowing affected parties to continue their work without violating or changing their beliefs.
This claim proved both incorrect and ridiculous. Pants on Fire!