WASHINGTON (CNA) – The U.S. bishops criticized Vice President Joe Biden for an "inaccurate statement of fact" about the HHS mandate’s impact on religious institutions during last week’s night’s vice presidential debate.
"With regard to the assault on the Catholic Church, let me make it absolutely clear," said the vice president during the Oct. 11 debate in Danville, Ky.
"No religious institution – Catholic or otherwise, including Catholic social services, Georgetown hospital, Mercy hospital, any hospital – none has to either refer contraception, none has to pay for contraception, none has to be a vehicle to get contraception in any insurance policy they provide," he argued. "That is a fact."
"This is not a fact," responded the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in an Oct. 12 statement.
The bishops’ conference criticized the vice president’s remarks on the federal contraception mandate, calling them "inaccurate."
Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan responded by saying, "Now I have to take issue with the Catholic Church and religious liberty. If they agree with you, then why would they (dioceses and other Catholic institutions) keep suing you? It’s a distinction without a difference."
Issued under the authority of the Affordable Care Act, the controversial mandate requires employers to offer health insurance that covers contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs.
In recent months, more than 100 plaintiffs – including both Catholic and non-Catholic universities, charitable organizations and private businesses – have filed lawsuits challenging the mandate, arguing that it infringes upon their constitutional right to free exercise of religion.
Ryan raised the issue of the mandate during the debate while answering a question about the Catholic faith shared by both contenders. Mr. Ryan said that the mandate "troubles" him because it threatens religious freedom.
In responding to Mr. Biden’s claims, the bishops’ conference emphasized that the mandate includes only a narrow exemption for religious employers. The exemption applies only to non-profit organizations that exist primarily for the inculcation of religious values and both employ and serve primarily members of their own faith.
Therefore, the conference said, any religious charities, hospitals and social agencies that serve all people of any faith – including Georgetown Hospital and the other organizations named by Biden – are not covered by the exemption, which was finalized in February 2012.
The bishops’ conference also underscored that while the administration has proposed an additional "accommodation" for these non-exempt religious organizations, the proposal "does not even potentially relieve these organizations."
The accommodation, which is still in its preliminary stages, offers a series of suggestions to relieve non-religious organizations from funding the controversial coverage if they object to it, while still including the coverage as part of the plans.
However, critics say the suggestions all amount to an accounting gimmick, because they would still require the objecting organizations to pay for the coverage indirectly, through necessarily increased premiums.
The bishops’ conference argued that under the proposed schemes religious organizations "will have to serve as a vehicle, because they will still be forced to provide their employees with health coverage, and that coverage will still have to include sterilization, contraception, and abortifacients."
"They will have to pay for these things, because the premiums that the organizations (and their employees) are required to pay will still be applied, along with other funds, to cover the cost of these drugs and surgeries," it added.
The bishops’ conference said that it continues to ask the Obama administration "in the strongest possible terms" to take action that truly removes "the various infringements on religious freedom imposed by the mandate."