Soledad O'Brien Parrots White House Talking Points on HHS Contraception Mandate

Even when told that paying for birth control would violate the consciences of certain religious organizations, CNN's Soledad O'Brien wondered why the groups still shouldn't have to cover contraceptives for interested employees.

O'Brien cited statistics from the abortion-supportive Guttmacher Institute showing that even the vast majority of Catholic women use birth control. She then asked why so many shouldn't have the option to pursue such practices, regardless of what the Catholic Church teaches.

"But a lot of their employees aren't Catholic, right?" O'Brien asked of Catholic schools and hospitals. She said of the HHS mandate, "ultimately isn't that giving an option to people who have decided not to follow the church's teaching on this?"

The CNN host appeared to ask one substantial question of the other guest, the ACLU's deputy legal director Louise Melling. However, she framed her question carefully, asking only about the freedom of churches – which are obviously exempt from the mandate – and not religious schools or hospitals. "Why shouldn't someone like a church, who is against contraception, say why can't we opt out of that?" O'Brien asked.

[Video below. Click here for audio.]

This teed up Melling to give her liberal spin, that since churches are exempt from the ruling, no one's religious liberty has been violated. According to Melling, since hospitals and schools work in the public square they must respect the rights of the public – rights which apparently include contraception.

O'Brien used this answer to press Blackburn on the fact that since so many Catholics and non-Catholics use birth control, they should be covered for it.

"So if it comes to Catholic universities, et cetera, they have to pay for contraception for their employees. They have to offer it, should the employees want to take them up on that, right? So how is that about religious freedom?" O'Brien ignorantly asked at the beginning of the segment. Rep. Blackburn had to explain to her that the employers were forced to provide for practices against their religious beliefs.

A transcript of the segment, which aired on February 7 at 7:18 a.m. EST, is as follows:


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: There's controversy over a portion of President Obama's health care law. It requires some religious affiliated organizations, universities, hospitals to cover birth control services under their insurance programs. That's going to happen on August 1st.

Religious organizations are outraged over the mandate. They say it goes against their fundamental beliefs and the issue has spilled into the campaign trail as well. Listen to Mitt Romney from last night.

(Video Clip)

MITT ROMNEY, Republican presidential candidate: This is a violation of conscience. We must have a president who is willing to protect America's first right, a right to worship God, according to the dictates of our own conscience.

(End Video Clip)


O'BRIEN: Congresswoman, let's begin with you. When you hear from Mitt Romney saying this is about the right to worship God, this is about religious freedom, how is this about religious freedom and a right to worship?

Rep. MARSHA BLACKBURN, (R-Tenn.): Well, it is about religious freedom because what has happened with the Obamacare Bill, Soledad, is specifically this. That bill is about government force, government forcing their way into what you believe, what you're going to – what you're going to be able to provide. And that is not what the American people want.

What happened to the President saying, if you like what you have, you can keep it. Well, we know that that didn't happen.


O'BRIEN: Right. But let me stop you there. Let me stop you there.

BLACKBURN: That didn't happen.

O'BRIEN: So let me stop you there for a second, because again, I want to bring you back to the original – original question, which is how is that about the right to worship God and how is that about religious freedom, because what it's saying, right, is that these churches have a very narrow – narrowly – only narrowly can get out of this requirement.

So if it comes to Catholic universities, et cetera, they have to pay for contraception for their employees. They have to offer it, should the employees want to take them up on that, right? So how is that about religious freedom?

BLACKBURN: It is about forcing employers to provide things that go against their religious beliefs. And when you have individuals that go to church on Sunday and put money in the offering plate, they need to be assured that that money is not going to go and pay for contraceptive items, for abortion pills.

And this mandate covers all FDA-approved medications. So what it does is go against what those religious beliefs are. And I think that this is clearly an example where the federal government does not know best. And the federal government and the Obamacare Bill should not be forcing these employers to go against their religious beliefs. What's it going to do?

O'BRIEN: So let's bring Louise in – let's bring Louise in for that. So what she's saying is that – and they are requiring an employee to offer the choice of contraception for the employees. Why shouldn't someone like a church, who is against contraception, say why can't we opt out of that?

LOUISE MELLING, deputy legal director, ACLU: This will respect religious liberty. Churches for example aren't affected. Churches don't have to provide contraceptive coverage as part of their package.

What this rule says, however, is that institutions like hospitals and charities and schools that open their door to the public, serve primarily the public, don't have a primary purpose of inculcating religion, have to offer the same insurance everybody else does. Ninety-eight percent of American women use contraception at some point in their lives. That includes Catholics. This says if you play in the public sphere, you serve the public, you play by public rules.

O'BRIEN: So let's bring it back to the Congresswoman. That 98 percent number and I've seen ranges between high 80s and up to, you know, 99 percent of women are using contraception. And if you look specifically at Catholics, they're actually somewhere, you know, high 80s that are using contraception. So ultimately isn't that giving an option to people who have decided not to follow the church's teaching on this?

BLACKBURN: Well, what it is doing is forcing the issue of religious freedom, Soledad. And as you said in your first question, what this is, is government coming in and saying to institutions that are founded on these religious beliefs that you are going to have to comply with this federal government mandate and –

O'BRIEN: But a lot of their employees – but a lot of their employees aren't Catholic, right? So, I mean, what you're saying, those are for people who – employees who may not be Catholic, who may actually be using contraception if they are Catholic.

BLACKBURN: It is a Catholic employer. You've got 70 million Catholics. You've got institutions. You've got colleges. There are already lawsuits filed. The Beckett Fund has a couple of lawsuits that are filed fighting this on behalf of Catholic institutions. And I hope that they continue to fight it every step of the way. This is a religious liberty issue. These religious organizations are now being forced by the federal government to come in and they're going to be pushed out of the health care arena. Then who is going to step in and fill that void?

O'BRIEN: So let me – let me run –

BLACKBURN: It will be the federal government.

O'BRIEN: Let me play a little bit – or it's a letter, actually from Cardinal O'Malley and he wrote this. "Unless the rule is overturned, we Catholics will be compelled and must be prepared to either violate our consciences or drop health coverage for our employees, and suffer the penalties of doing so." Louise, let me give you the final word on this, this morning. How do you think this ends?

MELLING: Well, first of all, I just want to emphasize again the church is not interfered with. People can hold to their beliefs, and what we're doing here is nothing exceptional, asking employers to provide contraception for their employees. Twenty-eight states already do it. New York, California have the same exemption.

This is about saying if you're an institution you serve the public, you open your doors to the public, then you have to play by public rules. We all respect religious freedom, but you don't have the right to impose your religion on other people. And the fact that you're people of good faith it doesn't mean that you're exempt from rules like anti-discrimination rules and rules governing our health once you operate in the public sphere. We'll see. The public wants this. American women want coverage for what is an essential piece of their health care.

- Matt Hadro is a News Analyst at the Media Research Center