WASHINGTON (CNS) – The Catholic Health Association, Our Sunday Visitor newsweekly and two more bishops have joined other Catholic leaders and institutions in weighing in on new proposed rules governing the contraceptive mandate from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Issued Feb. 1, the new proposal attempts to accommodate objections raised by Catholic institutions, among others, that the exemption for religious employers was too narrow and that most would be forced to stop providing employee health insurance because they object on moral grounds to the requirement they cover contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs.
The Catholic Health Association said the changes "are substantial progress" but it will continue to study them and work with its member hospitals, the leadership of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Obama administration "to complete this process."
The Feb. 13 statement, issued by Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity and CHA's president and CEO, said the group was pleased that HHS removed "three objectionable conditions" in defining religious employers – as groups whose purpose is the inculcation of religious values, who primarily employ persons of the same faith and who serve those of the same faith.
The fourth criterion remains – what is a nonprofit organization under specific sections of the Internal Revenue Code. Employees of nonprofit religious organizations – such as many Catholic hospitals and universities – would have those services covered through separate insurance plans, and HHS says employers would not fund or administer these separate plans.
No exemption, however, will be given to "for-profit, secular employers" whose owners have moral objections to providing the coverage.
In an unsigned editorial in the Feb. 24 issue, Our Sunday Visitor acknowledged the clarification of what defines religious organizations but at the same time, it said, the "government has replaced these (criteria) with a very technical and very narrow definition of what is considered an exempt religious organization."
"The bottom line is that instead of recognizing that this is a coercive and unnecessary overreach by the government to force Catholic organizations to violate their consciences or go out of business, the government appears to have doubled down," it said.
In a Feb. 11 letter to diocesan employees, Bishop Blase J. Cupich of Spokane, Wash., said he was pleased HHS removed three of the four criteria for defining religious organizations and for providing "an alternative pathway of accommodation," which could provide religious organizations with the ability to "fully exercise their moral objections to providing contraceptives, sterilizations and abortifacients, while not breaking the law."
He said in "many ways this is a positive development, but with documents of such complexity we need to give more and careful study to the details outlined in it."
Bishop Robert N. Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla., said in a Feb. 9 posting on his blog that the Obama administration has been "desirous of listening to and accommodating the concerns of Catholics" referring in particular to the changes in how religious organizations are defined.
"We still have time to work to smooth out some of the rough waters which lie ahead," he wrote, stressing that the bishops should collaborate with others on this issue.
In its Feb. 13 statement, CHA said it welcomed "HHS' intent to protect eligible organizations from having to contract, arrange, pay, or refer for contraceptive coverage to which they object on religious grounds. HHS also proposes that these organizations will incur no liability for the failure of others such as insurance companies to provide such services. We are grateful for the simplicity of the self-certification process."
It also said it is studying the proposed accommodation for "eligible organizations" that would apply "to our ministries" and emphasized its issues "as a ministry are narrower than the broader concerns" of the USCCB.
Bishop Cupich in his letter to Catholics said the HHS's removal of the four-part definition of religious groups "has the potential of being a breakthrough moment" but he also said church leaders have to "better understand what is involved in granting some church institutions the exemption outright or by way of accommodation."
"The critical issue is that we find a moral way forward so that health care coverage can be offered to our employees," he added.
"It will be important in the days ahead for lawyers and staffers of dioceses and the USCCB, of Catholic Charities USA, of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, and of the Catholic Health Association to work together. Whether it is in terms of medicine or law, it is always prudent to seek unbiased second and even third opinions," Bishop Cupich said.
All must "press forward to a solution, in a way that is respectful and forthright, but which is also aware that the lives and security of those who work for the church are at stake," he said.
Bishop Lynch in his blog said the end result "is likely to be imperfect regulations drawn from imperfect legislation," but he is "grateful that more universal health care coverage will be the first fruit of the Affordable Care Act." He also added that he is "beginning to feel" that he can say to his diocesan self-insured employees "that their moral right to health care coverage will survive this moment."
In its editorial Our Sunday Visitor, which is based in Huntington, Ind., also said the new rules "created an elaborate, if still somewhat vague, structure for forcing insurance companies and third-party administrators – who handle the insurance claims of self-insured organizations such as Our Sunday Visitor – to provide or procure coverage for contraceptives, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs for the employees, their children or students of objecting religious organizations."
The new proposed rules "look less like a sincere effort to accommodate the religious beliefs of a significant portion of Americans, and more like an effort by the administration to batten down its legal hatches and improve its legal position by ever more narrowly defining those organizations who will be exempted from the mandate."
It called the new rules "an opportunity lost," stressing that President Barack Obama had the chance at the start of his second term to "drop this offensive assault on religious freedom that threatens a wide variety of Catholic organizations."
The editorial said the president has "an opportunity for a do-over that would remove a dangerous legal precedent. He has an opportunity to reset relations with Catholic leaders as he engages in several critical issues of mutual concern such as immigration reform, budget cuts and means of restricting gun violence."
"We recognize that the administration has asked for further input on these proposed amendments, and we continue to hope that a negotiated solution will be found that respects the consciences of all," it said.
HHS is accepting comment on the new proposed rules until April. Final rules are expected by summer.