Catholic bishops – outraged by a White House response to their objections on the new rules that require religious organizations to also provide insurance plans covering contraceptives, sterilization and some abortion-causing drugs – are planning to start a battle involving legislation, litigation and advocacy.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Friday lambasted President Barack Obama's administration, saying it posted a set of "false and misleading claims" on the White House blog Thursday to defend the rules announced last month.
"To be eligible [for exemption], even churches and houses of worship must show the government that they hire and serve primarily people of their own faith and have the inculcation of religious values as their purpose," the bishops said in a statement.
They were referring to the blog post, which said, "Churches and other houses of worship will be exempt from the requirement to offer insurance that covers contraception."
Anthony Picarello, general counsel of the USCCB, told Los Angeles Times that the bishops would "pursue every legal avenue available to them to bring an end to this mandate." That means, he said, legislation, litigation and public advocacy. "All options are on the table."
In the blog post, the White House sought to defend the rules framed by the Health and Human Services. The mandate, issued in August last year, includes drugs that work after conception to destroy life rather than prevent it, the Family Research Council Action says.
Bishops say it includes a thin exemption for religious organizations. "Some churches may have service to the broader community as a major focus, for example, by providing direct service to the poor regardless of faith," the statement pointed out. "Such churches would be denied an exemption precisely because their service to the common good is so great." More importantly, the vast array of other religious organizations, including schools, hospitals, universities and charitable institutions, will clearly not be exempt.
The blog written by Cecilia Muñoz, director of the Domestic Policy Council, also claimed that no individual health care provider would be forced to prescribe contraception. But the USCCB says it is true that the rules directly apply to employers and insurers, not providers, but the administration is "forcing individuals and institutions, including religious employers, to sponsor and subsidize what they consider immoral." The mandate also includes abortifacient drugs, violating one of the "existing conscience protections" for which the Obama-administration expresses "strong support."
Muñoz also mentioned that over half of Americans already live in the 28 states that require insurance companies cover contraception. But this is also misleading, Catholic bishops said. "All the state mandates, even those without religious exemptions, may be avoided by self-insuring prescription drug coverage, by dropping that particular coverage altogether, or by taking refuge in a federal law that pre-empts any state mandates (ERISA)," it said. "None of these havens is available under the federal mandate."
It's not just the Catholics but also many Republicans and religious groups who are opposing the mandate.
Last week, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced a bill, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, S.B. 2043, that would limit the mandate. "It would allow the organizations who have conscientious objections to opt out," he told The Christian Post.
The National Association of Evangelicals has also criticized it. Freedom of conscience is a "sacred gift from God, not a grant from the state," Galen Carey, NEA's Vice President for Government Relations, recently said in a statement. "No government has the right to compel its citizens to violate their conscience. The HHS rules trample on our most cherished freedoms and set a dangerous precedent."
Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan of New York has said the federal government is forcing individuals and organizations "to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience." "This shouldn't happen in a land where free exercise of religion ranks first in the Bill of Rights."