Religious Exemption ‘Wholly Inadequate’

by Nancy Frazier O’Brien

WASHINGTON (CNS) – The proposed religious exemption to the federal mandate that health insurance plans cover contraceptives and sterilization is “wholly inadequate to protect the conscience rights of Catholic hospital and health care organizations,” the head of the Catholic Health Association (CHA) told the Department of Health and Human Services.

Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity who is CHA president and chief executive officer, proposed to HHS that the definition of a religious employer be adapted to one contained in the Internal Revenue Code, which says an organization is “associated with a church if it shares common religious bonds and convictions with the church.”

Instead, the HHS proposal defines a religious organization that could be exempt from the mandate as one that meets four 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.

That definition has drawn criticism from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services and other Catholic groups. HHS was accepting comments on the proposed religious exemption until Sept. 30.

The exemption would apply to a requirement under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that health insurers cover sterilization and the full gamut of contraceptives approved by the Food and Drug Administration without deductible or co-payment as part of preventive health care for women.