Catholic Bishops Back Bill to Fix Conscience Gaps in Obamacare

National   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Sep 8, 2011   |   12:06PM   |   Washington, DC

The nation’s Catholics bishops are supporting legislation in Congress that would close the gaps in protecting conscience rights for religious employers that don’t want to pay for abortion drugs or birth control under the Obamacare law.

In a new letter to members of Congress, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the head of the pro-life office of the Catholic bishops, told lawmakers to support a bill (H.R. 1179, S. 1467) that will close gaps in protection of conscience rights in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. The measure would, in light of the threat to conscience rights posed by a new mandate from the Department of Health and Human Services, correct some of the problems with the law.

“I urge you to support and co-sponsor the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, to help preserve respect in federal law for the freedom to follow the dictates of one’s conscience,” wrote Cardinal DiNardo, chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

DiNardo noted that passage of the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act is more urgent now that HHS has mandated that all private insurance plans cover contraceptives and sterilization as well as drugs that can cause abortions, like ella.

DiNardo complained the HHS rule has an “incredibly narrow” exemption for religious employers which “protects almost no one,” since organizations that employ or serve people of another religion would not qualify.

“For example, a Catholic institution serving the poor and needy would have to fire its non-Catholic staff, refuse life-affirming care to non-Catholic people in need, and devote itself instead to ‘the inculcation of religious values’ to qualify for the exemption,” Cardinal DiNardo wrote. “Individuals, insurers, and the sponsors of non-employee health plans (e.g., student health plans in Catholic schools) would have no exemption at all. This effort to corral religion exclusively into the sanctuaries of houses of worship betrays a complete ignorance of the role of religion in American life, and of Congress’s long tradition of far more helpful laws on religious freedom.”

“Those who sponsor, purchase and issue health plans should not be forced to violate their deeply held moral and religious convictions in order to take part in the health care system or provide for the needs of their families, their employees or those most in need,” Cardinal DiNardo wrote. “To force such an unacceptable choice would be as much a threat to universal access to health care as it is to freedom of conscience.”

In August, Obama officials tentatively approved a recommendation from the Institute of Medicine, opposed by pro-life groups, that called for the Obama administration to require insurance programs to include birth control — such as the morning after pill or the ella drug that causes an abortion days after conception — in the section of drugs and services insurance plans must cover under “preventative care.” The companies will likely pass the added costs on to consumers, requiring them to pay for birth control and, in some instances, drug-induced abortions of unborn children in their earliest days.

The Health and Human Services Department commissioned the report from the Institute, which advises the federal government and shut out pro-life groups in meetings leading up to the recommendations.

The Family Research Council, a pro-life group, is encouraging pro-life advocates to contact the Obama administration and urge it to protect conscience rights for organizations that don’t want to be involved in promoting abortion, drugs that can cause abortions and birth control.

Recently, the nation’s Catholic bishops sent their own public comments with concerns about the recommendations. The legal counsel for the Catholic bishops has submitted a 35-page comment saying the Obama administration’s decision “represents an unprecedented attack on religious liberty” and creates “serious moral problems” that are sufficient for it to not adopt the IOM recommendations. The Department of Health and Human Services has given the public until the end of the month to comment on the tentative decision to adopt the recommendations.

“Only rescission will eliminate all of the serious moral problems the mandate creates,” Anthony Picarello Jr. and Michael Moses, general counsel and associate general counsel, said. “Only rescission will correct HHS’ legally flawed interpretation of the term ‘preventive services.’“

The attorneys also said the bishops are concerned about the weak religious exemptions in the proposal.

The HHS statement also said, “The administration also released an amendment to the prevention regulation that allows religious institutions that offer insurance to their employees the choice of whether or not to cover contraception services. This regulation is modeled on the most common accommodation for churches available in the majority of the 28 states that already require insurance companies to cover contraception.  HHS welcomes comment on this policy.”

Those exemptions would include a nonprofit religious employers that has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose, primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets, and serves persons who share its religious tenets. However, although the 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. For example, under the new rule, Catholic 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.

The USCCB attorneys said the weak protection “represents an unprecedented intrusion by the federal government into the precincts of religion that, if unchecked here, will support ever more expansive and corrosive intrusions in the future.”

“Under such inexplicably narrow criteria – criteria bearing no reasonable relation to any legitimate (let alone compelling) government purpose – even the ministry of Jesus and the early Christian church would not qualify as ‘religious,’ because they did not confine their ministry to their co-religionists or engage only in a preaching ministry,” they said. “The government has no business engaging in religious gerrymanders, whereby some churches are ‘in’ and others are ‘out’ for regulatory purposes based on who their teaching calls them to serve, how they constitute their workforce or whether they engage in ‘hard-nosed proselytizing.”

“Church agencies with the temerity (in the government’s view) to hire and serve persons other than their own members are penalized by the HHS exemption or, alternatively, forced to fire nonmembers and withdraw from or limit public service,” they said. “Such a forced choice is offensive, discriminatory and unconstitutional.”