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Bishops’ Conference Says Proposed Federal Rule Could Limit Work of Catholic Charities

The headquarters of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is seen in Washington in this file photo. The department Feb. 1 issued revised regulations related to the contraception mandate and religious concerns under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. U.S. bishops had lambasted the mandate as violating religious freedom. (Photo: CNS/Nancy Phelan Wiechec) (Feb. 1, 2013) See HHS-REVAMP Feb. 1, 2013.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. bishops said a proposed rule by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services aimed at protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination in federal agency grants could limit the work of Catholic social service agencies.

The Office of the General Counsel of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sent a nine-page response to HHS officials Sept. 5 about the rule announced this summer that aims to “affirm civil rights and equal opportunity for people nationwide in HHS funded programs and services.”

The proposed rule was issued this summer by the HHS Office for Civil Rights intending to prevent discrimination over someone’s gender identity or sexual orientation in grants for people experiencing homelessness, treatment for substance use, and maternal and child health services.

“When individuals seek care and services from HHS in our programs and activities, they should not have to fear being discriminated against because of who they are or who they love,” Melanie Fontes Rainer, director of the federal agency’s Office for Civil Rights, said in a statement.

The bishops said the proposed rule would place “unconstitutional conditions on participation in government programs” which would threaten Catholic social service agencies from carrying out their work. “In the end,” they said those who would be hurt the most would be “those whom we serve: victims of domestic violence, refugees and newcomers, children, the homeless, the sick, and the poor.”

They also said the rule’s “religious exemption scheme offers no assurance to religious charities that they will be able to participate in HHS-funded programs without being made to violate their beliefs.” 

A few of the examples cited in the bishops’ response included that Catholic social service agencies could be required “to house biological men who identify as women in single-sex facilities” and Catholic agencies could be required to place migrant children with same-sex couples as foster parents.

“Any charity that has separate men’s and women’s bathrooms or changing areas could be required to allow men to use the women’s facility and vice versa; any charity may be required to address an employee or beneficiary by pronouns that do not correspond with his or her biological sex,” the letter said.

The bishops emphasized that the Catholic Church “stands firmly against all unjust discrimination, including against those among us who experience same-sex attraction or gender discordance, who are equally loved by God. They bear the full measure of human dignity we each have received through our Creator and must therefore be treated with kindness and respect.”

They also noted that another tenet of the Catholic faith is that “there is an order in the natural world that was designed by its Creator” regarding human bodies that are “sexually differentiated as male or female.”

The bishops urged the federal agency to reconsider the proposed rule’s interpretation of discrimination provisions and “implement a religious exemption that properly respects religious charities’ statutory and constitutional rights.”

The HHS will no longer accept comments on the proposed rule after Sept. 11.