By Kevin J. Jones
President-elect Joe Biden’s choice to direct the Office of Management and Budget is Neera Tanden, president and CEO of the Center for American Progress and a major advocate of a federal mandate that has tied up the Little Sisters of the Poor in court over their opposition to contraception.
Her think tank has a history of anti-religious freedom advocacy and has sponsored fellowships for Christian figures who have split global Christianity over LGBT activism.
Tanden was a strong backer of federally mandated contraception coverage, seeing it as a way to advance her vision of reproductive health, to overcome pro-abortion rights defeats, and to marginalize critics of abortion. The 2012 mandate continues to cause legal trouble for Catholic groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic religious congregation that provides care for the indigent elderly, who are still seeking a resolution in federal courts. They argue it violates their religious freedom to require them to provide employee health plans that cover sterilization or contraception, including drugs that can cause abortion—procedures and drugs which violate Catholic teaching.
If confirmed by the Senate, Tanden would head the effort to translate Biden administration’s priorities into a budget, National Public radio reports. Policies set by her office affect fiscal and personnel policy for agencies and oversee the executive branch’s regulatory processes.
At his Dec. 1 announcement of her nomination to direct the Office of Management and Budget, Biden praised her “brilliant policy mind with critical practical experience across government”
“Budgets are not abstractions,” Tanden said. “They are a reflection of our values. They touch our lives in profound ways, and sometimes they make all the difference.”
Tanden, the daughter of Indian immigrants, said her family relied on food stamps and Section 8 housing vouchers, and credits the social safety net for helping her mother reach the middle class.
Tanden served in the Clinton and Obama administrations.
Her work at the Center for American Progress, which she helped launch in 2003 and where she has been president and CEO since 2011, is likely to draw scrutiny during her confirmation process.
The center has a record of seeking to influence the culture and politics of religion and religious freedom. In February 2012 its former head John Podesta took part in the “Catholic Spring” emails speculating about fomenting revolution against the Catholic bishops over their opposition to the Obama administration’s mandate that Catholic organizations provide sterilization and contraception, including abortifacient drugs, in their health plan coverage.
Tanden, a former adviser to Obama’s Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, was a strong defender of the HHS mandate. She discussed the mandate in a March 11, 2012 essay for The New Republic, “The 1990s Roots of the Contraception Battle.”
She attributed the mandate’s origin to then-First Lady Hillary Clinton’s January 1998 White House meeting with leaders of Planned Parenthood and other pro-abortion groups. The meeting was convened to respond to the political damage that debate over late-term, “partial-birth” abortion and the need, in Tanden’s words, to “shift the debate away from a rarely used procedure and back toward the reproductive health needs of women” and move to a debate that could demonstrate “the extremes of the anti-choice position.” They decided to focus on promoting contraception in health care plans
“Fourteen years ago, leaders of the women’s movement saw contraception as a unifying issue, one that the vast majority of Americans would support. They strategized that those who opposed contraception would be seen as extreme. In the past several weeks, they were proven right,” Tanden said.
She argued that efforts to mandate contraception in the 1990s passed largely without opposition, but the new mandate drew “vociferous opposition by religious groups” who turned the debate into a question of religious freedom.
“Most people viewed it as a basic health protection, not a controversial issue. And that’s why it was also successful as a political cudgel, helping isolate extreme anti-choice advocates from the mainstream,” said Tanden.
Prior to 2012, according to Tanden, the Catholic Church in New York did not actively resist a state mandate of contraceptive coverage, though it obeyed “under formal protest.” Republican politicians had supported mandating contraceptive coverage without religious liberty exemptions.
She saw the 2012 objections to the HHS mandate raising questions of religious liberty as initially making “an enormous political difference,” but she argued majority support for the contraception measure would make its opponents appear extreme.
The HHS mandate lost a 2014 Supreme Court challenge by the Hobby Lobby company, closely owned by an evangelical Christian family opposed to some contraception with abortifacient properties.
The Center for American Progress has continued to be a longtime critic of religious freedom protections when they conflict with its vision of reproductive rights and LGBT anti-discrimination demands. Its commentators have criticized houses sof worship that seek equal treatment as businesses under coronavirus public health restrictions. They have been “distorting religious freedom into a license to spread the coronavirus,” the center’s commentators have charged.
The Center for American Progress also criticized the religious liberty legal groups Becket, Alliance Defending Freedom, and Liberty Counsel, saying they “have been twisting religious freedom into a license to attack vulnerable populations for years before the pandemic.”
Religious freedom has also become a contentious issue with the legal recognition of same-sex relationships and the rise of strict anti-discrimination laws that give protected status to sexual orientation and gender identity.
For more than 15 years, Catholic adoption agencies in various states have suffered closure by law or due to the revocation of taxpayer funding because they cannot place children with same-sex couples. Christian schools with moral codes for faculty proscribing homosexual relationships have faced increasing social and legal pressure while wedding industry professionals have also faced legal pressure to serve at same-sex ceremonies.
The Center for American Progress is co-sponsoring a 2020 project on religious liberty topics with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Movement Advancement Project, a strategic communications and development organization in LGBT advocacy founded by the influential millionaire Tim Gill.
The briefing, titled “Connecting the Dots,” objected to the Trump administration’s actions in support of religious liberty, including a September 2019 statement of interest in a fired high school teacher’s lawsuit filed against the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. The archdiocese had ruled that the teacher violated archdiocesan policy and Catholic teaching by contracting a same-sex civil marriage and said that the Catholic high school must terminate his job to maintain its Catholic affiliation.
As CNA has previously reported, the Arcus Foundation, a major funder of LGBT advocacy, has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the center’s Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative “to promote religious liberty as a core progressive American value that includes LGBT equality and women’s reproductive health and rights,” grant listings on the foundation website show.
According to the Center for American Progress website, the initiative rejects the religious liberty objections of “many opponents of marriage equality and women’s reproductive health.”
“We work to raise the voices of faith-based leaders and advocates to promote an inclusive vision of religious liberty – one that supports human and civil rights and does not use religious liberty to discriminate or coerce others to abide by beliefs not their own.”
The initiative opposes “policies with overly broad religious exemptions that cause harm to others” and claims to support policies it said “promote religious liberty for all, rather than a favored few.”
In the early 2010s, tax forms show, the Arcus Foundation provided tens of thousands of dollars in financial support for Episcopalian bishop V. Gene Robinson’s fellowship at the Center for American Progress to help “amplify on a national level the voice and impact of the progressive social justice advocacy” of the bishop. Robinson’s controversial election as the Episcopalian Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003 helped split the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.
Biden’s presidential transition website stressed Tanden’s support for policies “designed to support working families, foster broad-based economic growth, and curb rampant inequality.”
Coverage of Tanden’s nomination has noting her frequent commentary on Twitter. She has been critical of both leading Republicans and supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Biden’s onetime presidential primary rival.