by Nancy Frazier O’Brien
WASHINGTON (CNS) – Although Catholic leaders vowed to fight on, the Obama administration has turned down repeated requests from Catholic bishops, hospitals, schools and charitable organizations to revise its religious exemption to the requirement that all health plans cover contraceptives and sterilization free of charge.
Instead, Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, announced Jan. 20 that nonprofit groups that do not provide contraceptive coverage because of their religious beliefs will get an additional year “to adapt to this new rule.”
“This decision was made after very careful consideration, including the important concerns some have raised about religious liberty,” Sebelius said. “I believe this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services.”
But Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the Obama administration had “drawn an unprecedented line in the sand” with the decision.
“The Catholic bishops are committed to working with our fellow Americans to reform the law and change this unjust regulation,” he added. “We will continue to study all the implications of this troubling decision.”
U.S. Cardinal-designate Edwin F. O’Brien, pro-grand master of the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher and apostolic administrator of the Baltimore Archdiocese, called the decision “shocking and disturbing.”
Saying it would force individuals and religious organizations “to surrender their beliefs – rooted in long-held Judeo-Christian tradition and practice – for the sake of political and financial expediency,” he called on Catholics “to pray for our elected officials and to work to reform this unjust regulation.”
Sebelius announced the mandate and a narrow religious exemption to it Aug. 1, 2011. Under the plan, after Aug. 1 of this year, new or significantly altered health plans will be required to provide all FDA-approved contraceptives, including some that can cause abortions, without co-pays or deductibles as part of preventive health care for women.
The only religious organizations exempt from the requirement would be those meeting four specific criteria — “(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 nonprofit organization” under specific sections of the Internal Revenue Code.
Those sections “refer to churches, their integrated auxiliaries, and conventions or associations of churches, as well as to the exclusively religious activities of any religious orders,” according to a footnote to the interim final rule.
Catholic groups, including the USCCB, the Catholic Health Association and Catholic Charities USA, called that exemption too narrow, saying it would require Catholic groups to stop all services to those who were not Catholic and would inappropriately involve the government in decisions about whether an organization is “religious enough” to be exempted.
“As it stands, it is unlikely that any Catholic college or university will be exempt,” said Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.
Holy Cross Father John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, described the Obama administration’s decision as “profoundly disturbing on many levels” and called for “a national dialogue among religious groups, government and the American people to reaffirm our country’s historic respect for freedom of conscience and defense of religious liberty.”
In a video posted on the USCCB website, Cardinal-designate Dolan said the decision put the Obama administration “on the wrong side of the Constitution” and should be rescinded.