US Bishops Reject Proposed 'Compromise' on HHS Contraception Mandate

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) said Tuesday in a statement issued to the Health and Human Services (HHS) that prospective changes in the contraception mandate, offered by the Obama administration as a form of compromise after a massive backlash, are still "morally objectionable."

The mandate, part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, requires employers – including most religious nonprofits such as hospitals and colleges (although not churches) – to provide health insurance that includes birth control for workers. The plan sparked protests from faith leaders and the public, and the Obama administration duly started working on a compromise in February, meant to "accommodate" religious institutions. Under the new rules, rather than requiring religiously affiliated charities and universities to pay for contraceptives, the cost would be shifted to health insurance companies, Obama said in February.

But after scrutinizing the proposed changes, titled the Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM), lawyers representing the USCCB said this week that religious employers and other stakeholders would still have their employee health insurance plans and premiums "used for services they find morally objectionable." The USSCB is the main Catholic Church body in the United States.

"We believe that this mandate is unjust and unlawful – it is bad health policy, and because it entails an element of government coercion against conscience, it creates a religious freedom problem," Anthony Picarello, USCCB associate general secretary and general counsel, and Michael Moses, associate general counsel, wrote in a joint statement.

The USCCB noted in its letter of protest that such an accommodation would only apply to some religious organizations and that it "would still leave their premiums or plans (or both) as the source or conduit for the objectionable 'services.' But the use of premiums and plans for that purpose is precisely what is morally objectionable, and having an insurer or third party administer the payments does not overcome the moral objection."

Church officials pointed to apparent multiple faults in the proposed amendment, including the very narrow definition of "religious employers" exempted from the mandate, as well as the fact that the ANPRM does not change the availability of contraceptive services in the list of mandated preventive services – the core issue for the Catholic Church, which views contraception as a sin.

"These moral and legal problems are compounded by an extremely narrow exemption that intrusively and unlawfully carves up the religious community into those that are deemed 'religious enough' for an exemption, and those that are not," Picarello and Moses wrote.

The USCCB urged the administration to resolve these issues "in favor of more, not less, religious freedom."

USCCB also pointed out that the amended proposal raises "new questions," such as whether employers must be independently exempt for their employees to participate in an exempt plan, whether religious objection to some, but not all, contraceptives should be accommodated, and whether a past practice of mistakenly or unknowingly covering contraceptives should disqualify one from accommodation.

The issue is being closely followed by the Christian community in the United States. Most Christian and pro-life organizations expressed support for the Catholic Church in its objections and called on President Obama to respect the religious freedom of American Catholic organizations.

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