This essay originally appeared on Beliefnet in 2000.

The District of Columbia City Council recently voted to require all employee health insurance plans to include coverage for contraceptives. In the debate leading up to the vote, the Council specifically rejected a "conscience clause" that would have exempted Catholic institutions and those of other religious groups that do not approve of artificial birth control.

The episode, extensively covered by the news media in the nation's capital, raised issues of anti-Catholic prejudice on the part of some of the legislation's backers. But it was actually a symptom of something more significant: a conflict between the Catholic Church and the reigning political culture that may be expected to grow more intense in the months and years ahead.

A notable aspect of the story was the speed and effectiveness with which the Archdiocese of Washington responded to the Council's action. Even before the vote was taken, parish priests in the diocese were alerted and encouraged to read a letter opposing the bill from their pulpits. In the letter, the Most Rev. William E. Lori, Washington's auxiliary bishop, urged Catholics to contact Council members directly and express their opposition. (The archbishop, the Most Rev. James Hickey, is recovering from hip-replacement surgery, and Bishop Lori has been acting in his stead.)

Nonetheless, the Council defiantly and unanimously approved the "Health Insurance Coverage for Contraceptives Act of 2000," as the bill was called, requiring that all religious and non-religious health-insurance providers in the District of Columbia include all types of contraceptives in their prescription drug plans. In short, the bill required the Archdiocese of Washington, the Catholic University of America, the U.S. Catholic Conference, and a range of other Catholic organizations within the District to pay for their employees' contraceptives. Some of those, such as Depo-Provera and certain kinds of birth control pills, are actually early abortifacients.

This is not just a local story. Mandatory contraceptive coverage has now become a "progressive" fad, and several states have enacted laws to that effect (usually subject to conscience clauses). Those that have not yet offered such coverage may soon be required to do so by a federal court. Under the umbrella of a class-action suit filed by Planned Parenthood Federation of America, a pharmacist in Seattle recently sued her employer for not including birth control devices in her health-care coverage. The disgruntled employee, Jennifer Erickson, believes "it's not fair that she has to spend $300 annually on birth control," according to an op-ed article about the case in the Washington Post. Because Erickson's suit was brought under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which forbids employment discrimination on the basis of sex, it could pave the way for mandatory contraceptive coverage nationwide if successful.

In the District of Columbia, the conscience clause, which would have allowed religious organizations to opt out of the measure, was defeated with the help of openly anti-Catholic rhetoric. "My problem is surrendering decisions on public health matters to the church," said Council member Jim Graham, holding up a newspaper article about the Pope's opposition to "gay pride" demonstrations--an issue not exactly relevant to the matter at hand. Saying that he had "spent years fighting church dogma," Graham, who is himself openly gay, warned against "deferring to Rome."

The archdiocese responded by accusing the Council of "health care 'totalitarianism.'" This was an "extremely serious infringement of religious freedom," Bishop Lori added. Indeed it was.

By now the story had reached page 1 of the Washington Post, and Congress got into the act. The Republican chairmen of the subcommittees with oversight for the District of Columbia's affairs said they would not allow the bill to become law without the conscience clause. Ernest Istook of Oklahoma, a Mormon, expressed dismay at the "bigotry that was expressed," while Thomas Davis of Virginia said: "It's one thing when you talk about religion imposing itself on the state. Here you have the state imposing itself on religion."

Bishop Lori told the Post that he had found the comments by some members of the City Council "evidence of anti-Catholic bigotry of the unreconstructed kind." In the Congressional debate, Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) echoed the hostility. "Having been educated in Catholic schools all my life," he said, in an unguarded moment caught by House television cameras, "if I were a gay man, I would feel the same sense of frustration and disappointment that Councilman Jim Graham expressed on the D.C. Council. And that disappointment, and the intolerance, and yes, the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church as an institution towards homosexuality ought to be addressed." An aide deleted these remarks from the Congressional Record, but this was judged a violation of House rules and Moran was compelled to restore his comments to the official record.