WASHINGTON (CNS) – Since the courts will not act quickly enough to protect the religious liberty concerns prompted by the Obama administration's contraceptive mandate, Congress must "address this urgent and fundamental issue before it completes its business this year," Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo told members of the House and Senate.
"Timely and uniform protection of these rights cannot be expected from the current lengthy judicial process," said the cardinal in an Aug. 3 letter to members of Congress. He is archbishop of Galveston-Houston and chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities.
Cardinal DiNardo described the contraceptive mandate as an "unprecedented and misguided federal policy."
"The Catholic bishops of the United States continue to advocate for life-affirming health care for all, especially for poor and vulnerable people," he wrote. "We do not see this policy as a step in that direction."
Cardinal DiNardo said that despite "widespread opposition to this coercive policy by religious organizations, lawmakers and the general public, Congress has still taken no action to counter it."
"The time for such action is, to say the least, overdue," he added. "The fundamental importance of the religious freedom issue at stake demands a timely congressional response."
The cardinal said the requirement to provide contraceptives to their employees free of charge will likely affect for-profit business owners first. He noted that four of the lawsuits against the mandate have been filed by Catholic business owners.
"These are devout individuals and families who own and operate businesses who, without any word of protest from employees, have been offering health coverage that does not violate their moral convictions," he said. "In effect, if an organization is 'for-profit' it is not allowed to be 'for' anything else.
"The owners who have imbued their companies with faith-based commitments to employee well-being, community service and social responsibility strongly disagree," Cardinal DiNardo wrote. "And at a time of grave concern over business and banking scandals, does anyone think that rewarding businesses obsessed solely with company profits is sound government policy?"
The cardinal noted that a federal judge had granted a temporary stay to Hercules Industries, a Denver-based business owned by the Catholic Newland family, ruling that any "public interest" served by the mandate is "countered, and indeed outweighed, by the public interest in the free exercise of religion."
"However, this welcome and sensible initial decision marks only the beginning of even the Newland family's court battle," he said. "It does not affect companies filing suit in other states, or even the many thoroughly religious nonprofit organizations whose religious character has always been obvious to most people.
"Vindication of the fundamental rights of these individuals and organizations may take years of litigation," he added.
Cardinal DiNardo said the mandate and the narrow religious exemption to it represent "an approach to religious freedom that is more grudging and arbitrary than any yet seen in federal law." In addition, he said, "few really know whether their request for exemption will be accepted by the government or not."
Coverage of contraceptives and sterilization "will be imposed 'automatically' on these organizations' employees and their dependent teenage children, regardless of the moral or religious objections of the employer or employee," he said. "Yet some have cynically said this policy ensures female employees' right to make their own choice on health coverage."
Two bills addressing areas of the health reform bill the Catholic bishops say are problematic – the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act and the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act, which has been incorporated into the Labor/HHS appropriations bill for fiscal year 2012 – are deadlocked in Congress.