A Capitol Hill hearing that was supposed to be about religious freedom and a mandate that health insurers cover contraception in the United States began as an argument about whether Democrats could add a woman to the all-male panel.
“Where are the women?” the minority Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., asked early in the hearing.
She criticized the Republican committee chairman, Rep. Darrel Issa, for wanting to “roll back the fundamental rights of women to a time when the government thought what happens in the bedroom is their business.”
“We will not be forced back to that primitive era,” she said.
Issa bristled at the charge and said Democrats could not add their witness because she was not a member of the clergy, but a student at Georgetown. He also faulted Democrats for not submitting the name of the witness, Sandra Fluke, in time.
Fluke would have talked about a classmate who lost an ovary because of a syndrome that causes ovarian cysts. Georgetown, which is affiliated with the Catholic Church, does not insure birth control, which is also used to treat the syndrome.
Issa said the hearing is meant to be more broadly about religious freedom and not specifically about the contraception mandate in the Health Reform law.
The congressional hearing suggested that the Obama administration went too far with its mandate that all insurers except churches – including non-church religious affiliated organizations – must offer health insurance. It’s titled “Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?”
Among the witnesses invited by Issa to attend the hearing was a representative of the Catholic bishops, who oppose the Obama administration “accommodation” on birth-control coverage. Joining them are many other men of other religions. Not invited, complained Democrats, were representatives from the Catholic Health Association, which is run by a woman and actually runs the Catholic hospitals, nor Catholic Charities, both of which said Friday they supported the president’s plan.
Ranking committee member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., wanted to invite third-year Georgetown Law Center student Sandra Fluke to testify, telling Issa it was important to have at least one woman at the witness table because the issue involved health repercussions for women. Read Fluke’s full testimony here.
Issa’s staff sent a letter to the Democrats, saying, “As the hearing is not about reproductive rights but instead about the administration’s actions as they relate to freedom of religion and conscience, he believes that Ms. Fluke is not an appropriate witness.”
“It was just crushing to hear the chairman’s reason to not allow my testimony,” Fluke told ABC News. “I can understand that [the issue] is connected to religion, but I don’t understand how you can have an open conversation without hearing from the women who have been personally affected by this.”
Cummings, the ranking Democrat, and Maloney asked Issa to reconsider and let Fluke testify, noting she was in the audience, when the hearing got underway Thursday.
“It was staggering to sit there and feel like this panel of men was going to talk about my health and women like me,” Fluke said. “It felt so very wrong.”
Rep. Cummings accused Issa of creating “conspiracy hearing” and stacking the witness list by refusing to allow women “commits a massive injustice by trying to pretend that the views of millions of women across the country are meaningless.”
A terse back and forth followed between Issa, Maloney and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington, D.C., about what the true purpose of the hearing was and whether a violation of rules existed. Issa pointed out that Democrats barred Republican witnesses when they were in the majority. Two women were featured on the second panel, one a female physician.
In what seemed like a move to drive home his point, Issa’s first witness, Roman Catholic Bishop William Lori, used a hypothetical example of the government forcing a Jewish orthodox-owned deli to serve pork, as a comparison to the Health and Human Services’ mandate for religious employers.
The next three witnesses asked why the government was getting involved in the conscience of the American people.
“Religious people determine what violates their conscience, not the federal government,” the Rev. Jonah Paffhausen, Washington archbishop of the Orthodox Church in America, said. “Please get the federal government, Mr. Chairman, out of our consciences.”
Congressman Danny K. Davis asked the witnesses about their position regarding the ability of birth control to offer other preventative care for woman (such as ovarian cancer prevention) offered and endorsed by groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Public Health Association.
Rabbi Meir Soloveichik responded for the group.
“If that was the focus, none of us would be here today,” he said. “We are not here because we seek to hurt preventative care of anybody. We are here today because the administration is showing insensitivity to the liberty of conscience.”
Rep. Gerry Connolly accused the witnesses of “being used for a political agenda” and that the “hearing is a sham.”
“I think it taints the value of this panel that could have been a thoughtful discussion,” he said referring to the fact that the minority was denied their requested additional witnesses. “This is a panel designed to embarrass the president of the United states and his administration.”
All the witnesses defended their presence on the commitment to religious freedom.
Connolly also criticized the use of quotes and images of democratic presidents, such as John F. Kennedy, by Issa to demonstrate the administrations subversion of first amendment rights.
“In an almost Stalinist like fashion have signs of democratic icons,” he said.
The witnesses often emphasized they would not violate their “liberty of conscience.”
“If there is real religious liberty in our country,” Bishop Lori said, “then churches have the god given right to run their own institutions and own internal affairs according to their teachings. Fluke sat directly behind the bishop as he made the orthodox deli analogy.
“He spent his entire testimony talking about a hypothetical story,” she said. “It was very difficult to hear his testimony about a hypothetical story and not about the real stories, about the women in my story.”
ABC News’ Alexa Keyes contributed to this report.