Groups: Obama Admin Decision Violates Catholic Conscience Rights

National   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Aug 1, 2011   |   5:03PM   |   Washington, DC

The nation’s Catholic bishops and a Catholic organization that monitors Catholic colleges and universities are concerned about the Obama administration’s decision today.

As reported, the Health and Human Services Department ruled that insurance companies are required to include birth control and drugs that can cause abortions in their coverage by virtue of defining them as preventative care. Pro-life organizations are also concerned that the decision will violate the conscience rights of Catholics and religious and pro-life groups that don’t want to have to pay for insurance that covers birth control and abortion drugs but don’t qualify for the narrowly-drawn conscience limits the Obama administration will put in place under the decision.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sharply criticized the Obama administration’s “preventive services” mandate that it says “requires health plans to cover female surgical sterilization and all drugs and devices approved by the FDA as contraceptives, including drugs which can attack a developing unborn child before and after implantation in the mother’s womb.”

“Although this new rule gives the agency the discretion to authorize a ‘religious’ exemption, it is so narrow as to exclude most Catholic social service agencies and healthcare providers,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Archbishop of Galveston-Houston and chairman of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities.

“For example, under the new rule our institutions would be free to act in accord with Catholic teaching on life and procreation only if they were to stop hiring and serving non-Catholics,” Cardinal DiNardo continued.  “Could the federal government possibly intend to pressure Catholic institutions to cease providing health care, education and charitable services to the general public?  Health care reform should expand access to basic health care for all, not undermine that goal.”

“The Administration’s failure to create a meaningful conscience exemption to the preventive services mandate underscores the need for Congress to approve the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act,” the Cardinal said.   That bill (H.R. 1179), introduced by Reps. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) and Dan Boren (D-OK), would prevent mandates under the new health reform law from undermining rights of conscience.

Meanwhile, Patrick Reilly, President of The Cardinal Newman Society, added that the new health plan guidelines announced today by the Obama Administration would significantly violate the religious liberty of Catholic colleges and universities and the families who entrust students to Catholic education.

“The HHS guidelines would force Catholic colleges to violate the law or violate the Catholic faith,” he told LifeNews. “Neither option is acceptable.”

“It appears that Catholic colleges will be forced into the untenable position of helping students as well as employees obtain free contraceptives and sterilization,” Reilly said.  “Our religious freedom is under attack.”

Reilly said the “guidelines include a very narrow religious exemption that applies primarily to churches, but would likely not exempt most Catholic colleges and universities that serve students regardless of their religious beliefs.

The guidelines exempt a religious employer that “(1) has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose; (2) primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets; (3) primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets; and (4) is a non-profit organization…” Such language has been used in California and other states to ensure that most religious organizations are not exempted from contraceptive mandates.

“The HHS language is ambiguous and likely to be interpreted with a bias against Catholic agencies,” Reilly said.  “For instance, does a college ‘primarily’ serve Catholic students if more than half the students are Catholic?  75 percent?  What is the threshold?  It’s left to the discretion of federal bureaucrats who have demonstrated repeated disregard for Catholic institutions.”

“Meanwhile, this only increases the importance of Catholic colleges ensuring a strong and consistent Catholic identity, including clear ‘hiring for mission’ policies, so that they can demand First Amendment protection from unfair laws and regulations,” Reilly added.

Cardinal DiNardo added that “Catholics are not alone in conscientiously objecting to this mandate.”

“The drugs that Americans would be forced to subsidize under the new rule include Ella, which was approved by the FDA as an ’emergency contraceptive’ but can act like the abortion drug RU-486.  It can abort an established pregnancy weeks after conception.  The pro-life majority of Americans – Catholics and others – would be outraged to learn that their premiums must be used for this purpose,” he said.

“HHS says the intent of its ‘preventive services’ mandate is to help ‘stop health problems before they start,'” said Cardinal DiNardo. “But pregnancy is not a disease, and children are not a ‘health problem’ – they are the next generation of Americans. It’s now more vital than ever that Congress pass the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act to close the gaps in conscience protection in the new health care reform act, so employers and employees alike will have the freedom to choose health plans in accordance with their deeply held moral and religious beliefs.”