Got News? Sebelius unaware of religious liberty cases

Back in February, the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee held a hearing on religious liberty concerns arising from the new Health and Human Services mandate requiring religious employers to fund insurance plans that include drugs and services they morally oppose. This is an issue that has been boiling up since last year, but has suffered from poor coverage, which we’ve repeatedly detailed.

One of the ways the media have botched this story is by couching it as a debate over contraception as opposed to a debate over religious freedom. While it’s true that certain players in the battle do view it as a debate over contraception — and that is a legitimate and worthwhile avenue for coverage — it’s also true that other players in the battle (who may not even care about contraception or generally approve of it) view this as as a religious liberty debate. That side of the story has suffered from weaker coverage.

When the House held that hearing on religious freedom a few months ago, two women testified — Dr. Allison Dabbs Garrett, the senior vice-president for academic affairs at Oklahoma Christian University and Dr. Laura Champion, medical director of Calvin College Health Services. But because Democratic representatives staged a walkout before they spoke — on the grounds that no women were speaking at a hearing on religious freedom contraception — that’s the meme that’s been fully set. I noticed President Barack Obama made a joke at Saturday night’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner about the “contraception” hearing only featuring males (take that, Drs. Dabbs Garrett and Champion!).

Even though the hearing featured women who oppose the HHS mandate, the narrative that they don’t exist and didn’t testify was featured extensively and continues to dominate the message from that hearing. What wasn’t covered nearly as well as their (fictional) absence from the hearing was what any of the people testifying at the hearing said. It has been a very, very, very frustrating experience for those of us who are expressing concern about the separation of church and state as it relates to the mandates of the massive health care legislation passed in 2010.

Moving forward, this past Friday HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius testified before the U.S. House’s Education and Workforce Committee, where she was questioned by Rep. Trey Gowdy, a Republican from South Carolina. In her statement, Sebelius made the claim that she had carefully considered religious liberty concerns and sought to balance them in the final regulations governing the mandate in question.

Gowdy asked her several questions about what she meant when she said she balanced religious liberty concerns. He explained to the former Kansas governor and husband of a judge that there are three tests for legal balance, depending on the issues under consideration. He explained that because religious liberty is considered a fundamental right in the United States, any decision that might violate it requires the strictest scrutiny.

While she was still under oath, Sebelius said that her careful consideration relied on the expertise of HHS’ General Counsel, that no legal memo was ever written or at least provided to her on the topic, and that she was either unaware or unfamiliar with any of the significant cases related to religious liberty that have been decided by the Supreme Court.

There has been literally no mainstream media coverage of this rather telling testimony given under oath about one of the most pressing issues of religious freedom in our country. Now, if the HHS mandate — which requires religious employers for the first time in history to fund insurance plans they morally oppose — is about a “war on women,” this lack of coverage could make sense, I guess. It certainly doesn’t help advance the narrative that Sebelius was so ignorant of all these important issues surrounding religious freedom.

If this HHS mandate is, as its critics say, about a threat to religious liberty, this is extremely revealing testimony that should be covered.

What I’m trying to figure out is why the grandstanding silliness based on the completely erroneous claims that Dabbs Garrett and Champion don’t exist and didn’t testify back in February received so much coverage and why the faux-hearing based on Sandra Fluke’s completely irrelevant testimony was live-streamed on CNN, for instance, while the actual remarks given by the actual people who testified at the religious liberty hearing were ignored and the actual remarks given by the actual Secretary of HHS are ignored.

Apart from over-covering anybody’s grandstanding (and in this town, grandstanding is a lot of what happens no matter which side of the issue you’re on), I’d like to see more substantive coverage both of the claims made regarding rights to free birth control and abortion drugs as well as the claims made regarding religious freedom.

The thing is that this substantive coverage of religious liberty concerns wouldn’t mean that it would just be favorable to those who are fighting that side of the battle. Federal regulations are subject to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which relates to what Gowdy was talking about with strict scrutiny. While many think that the mandate would fail to meet the test of RFRA, it’s certainly not a slam dunk. At the state level somewhat similar mandates have been upheld, largely on the strength of a Supreme Court decision authored by none other than Antonin Scalia. This is all super fascinating stuff but not stuff that you can talk about when you’re giving a staged walkout of a hearing months of coverage while downplaying the actual legal battles that are being waged around these mandates.

Covering stunts is easy. Covering whether religious freedom concerns were given proper weight in the decision making process for this HHS mandate isn’t as easy. But it’s far more important, isn’t it? And besides, reporting what an HHS Secretary has testified under oath at a public hearing isn’t that difficult. Certainly a bunch of pro-life sites and Catholic agencies were able to do it within hours of the testimony. If media outlets need to hire some more people who speak the language of that half of the country that identifies as pro-life or whatever percentage care about religious freedoms being attacked here, it seems like that would be a good thing to do rather than miss major stories that are pretty easy to catch.

For what it’s worth, here is the New York Sun editorial on the matter, which begins:

What a remarkable glimpse of the gulf between the administration and Congress over religious freedom is flashing around the internet. It is a Youtube video of the secretary of health and human services, Kathleen Sebelius, at a hearing of the House Education and Workforce Committee hearing. She is being grilled by a Republican congressman of South Carolina, Trey Gowdy. He asks her about her a statement she has made about seeking a balance between believer’s rights and the contraception mandate. What becomes clear is that there is no feel for, no thought about, but glancing attention to the Constitution the secretary is sworn to support.

And if you’d like a more comprehensive write-up of what happened, here is the Catholic News Agency‘s take, which is helpful.

Print Friendly

  • Bill

    Covering stunts is easy. Covering whether religious freedom concerns were given proper weight in the decision making process for this HHS mandate isn’t as easy.

    That about sums it up. Besides stunts are more fun for the reader and viewer. And don’t we have a Constitutional right to fun? It’s like happiness, isn’t it.

    I hate to be cynical, but you can sell a lot more beer and cat food with stunts. The marks will sit through the next commercial break. And there’s likely a wider audience for a young woman law student who says she needs help paying for her contraceptives than a substantive discussion of religious liberty and freedom of conscience. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.

  • Jeff

    “What I’m trying to figure out is why the grandstanding silliness based on the completely erroneous claims that Dabbs Garrett and Champion don’t exist and didn’t testify back in February received so much coverage and why the faux-hearing based on Sandra Fluke’s completely irrelevant testimony was live-streamed on CNN, for instance, while the actual remarks given by the actual people who testified at the religious liberty hearing were ignored and the actual remarks given by the actual Secretary of HHS are ignored.”

    It’s to your credit, Mollie, that you feel an obligation to be kinder than most of us would be to the MSM.

    But if one is willing to risk being cruel to be kind, then it isn’t really hard to figure out why the MSM would rather talk about Sandra Fluke and imaginary “wars” on “women” than the actual testimony of Sebelius, Garrett, and Champion.

    And that’s because such testimony — and especially that of the naked Empress Kathleen — makes the position of the MSM against religious freedom and in favor of the kulturkampf against The Catholic Church on behalf of Planned Parenthood look very, very, very, very bad –amazingly insular, ignorant, arrogant, and hard to respect or take seriously.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Friends,
    I’ve had to delete quite a few comments that have not stayed focused on journalism.

    Also, I wanted to link to this article “5 Ways To Spot B.S. In A Political Story In Under 10 Seconds.”

    Some of the language is crass, but it raises some excellent points about the silliness of responding to stunts and horse races.

  • http://cleansingfiredor.com/ Thinkling

    I actually felt uncomfortable -for- the Secretary, the senator’s preparation and straightforward delivery was extaordinarily revealing in a Naked Emperor way. I am willing to entertain that the Secretary did take counsel advice here, and she was taking the fall for bad advice. If so, her advice was beyond bad. It was incompetent beyond belief.

    Note that this does not mean her advisors had to agree the mandate would not pass the guides of RFRA, they only needed to consider the possibility that it might not, and prepare to counter that possibility in an informed and itelligent way. And it is clear no one did this, rather simply “this is what we are going to do”.

    I am one who is deeply troubled by the religious liberty impact of the HHS mandate. But I might be even more troubled by this sheer incompetence of a significant number of public servents. And quite angry; if I were to be a tenth as incompetent as this in my current job, it would quickly be my former job.

  • Jeff

    Thinkling,

    It may be that a certain type of politician is incompetent in certain cases because most journalists are incompetent in those same cases in covering that type of politician (i.e. their own).

    It may have been that Sebelius and company were lazy since they knew the MSM would surely be lazy too, in covering a story that pits the Obama White House and Planned Parenthood against the Catholic Church.

    The Fourth Estate ought to act as a quality-control on the political class, but it fails in that responsibility once it gets in bed with special interests and particular factions within that political class, let alone when it becomes itself a special interest or political faction within the same.

    I don’t know much about Congressman Gowdy as a politician.

    But in the clip above he proves himself to be a better journalist, at least in this case, than anyone whom I can think of in the MSM.

  • http://cleansingfiredor.com/ Thinkling

    “[Gowdy] proves himself to be a better journalist, at least in this case, than anyone whom I can think of in the MSM”

    With due respect given to the actual videographer, I find myself in remarkable agreement here.

    “Sebelius and company were lazy since they knew the MSM would surely be lazy too”

    If by this you mean they knew they didn’t have to address the issue because it would not be brought up, and if you are right, then not only does that confirm my worries about competence, but it is a very damning statement about the state of journalism, at least in certain contexts.

    I hope you are wrong. I fear you may not be.

  • Harris

    One can imagine perhaps two other reasons as to why the women were forgotten.

    First, they were the “B” side. The first panel would naturally be the ones to get attention. This apparently would be the intended position of the hearing organizers.

    Second, as to Dr. Champion, her testimony was weak. She did not possess institutional authority — she works with students, not in the administration of the college health plan for employees, the center of the controversy. Second, the testimony itself shed little new light, serving more to bring up conventional talking points, particularly as regards the status of the fertilized egg status (while members in the Christian Reformed community may hold this viewpoint it would be a mistake to think of it as the normative one in the denomination).

    And lastly, the hearing itself had about it the whiff of grandstanding. That too, lends an easy frame for media coverage. The failure would appear to be more that of the committee leadership than of the coverage per se, after all, they could have put other figures before the committee and the media.

  • Julia

    Harris: these two witnesses could have been castigated as poor choices to testify, but it’s dishonest to say they didn’t exist.

  • Harris

    Julia: formally, that’s true. To the extent that our media narratives are shaped by image, the pictures of the initial panel sealed the deal. IIRC, some articles did end up mentioning the witnesses, albeit rather far down in the coverage.

    And this goes back to the basics: if one is going to do a show, be sure to get all of it right. In a Twitterized world of rapid response, first impressions may be all a story gets, thus the obligation on the message creators to get it right.

  • Jeff

    “In a Twitterized world of rapid response, first impressions may be all a story gets, thus the obligation on the message creators to get it right.”

    No, actually, the obligation is on the world and especially on journalists to be something more and something better than “Twitterized” — to be fair, decent, honest, and responsible adults; to be GOOD rather than “smart.”

  • John M.

    Male congressman embarrasses a female Secretary of HHS? Looks like the War on Women to me.

    Seriously, though, apart from the unseemly language, that link from Cracked you posted was pretty good.

    -John

  • Chris

    could it be that journalists don’t understand the constitutional right of religious freedom? And could it not also be that health coverage for contraception, something understood as an every day”need”, and the easy narrative of women’s rights , are far more easily understood by journalists and the reading public.

  • Julia

    Chris: Just like the HHS Secretary, it appears that reporters think of “separation of church and state”, and aren’t familiar with the actual words of the First Amendment. As a consequence, to them it sounds like the Constitution is walling off the church in order to protect the state; they don’t realize that the church was given freedom of action that the state can’t take away.

  • Jeff

    Chris,

    Whether journalists — and certain politicians — are not intelligent enough to understand The First Amendment or whether they are people of too little integrity to live by its terms like everyone else is almost beside the point.

    Either way, we have both a Fourth Estate and a political class who are either intellectually or morally unfit to do their jobs — and possibly both.

  • Julia

    I love “The Five Ways” straight talk.