U.S. bishops' spokesperson Sr. Mary Ann Walsh blasted the Department of Health and Human Services for interfering in the work of religious hospitals that want to opt out of providing free contraceptives.
Government “must not stick its proverbial camel's nose under the church tent,” Sr. Walsh said in an Aug. 8 Huffington Post editorial. “Now, however, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has gone beyond nuzzling its nose where it does not belong.”
“It has plunked itself right in the middle of the sanctuary. It is trying to define what a religion does and does not do.”
Walsh's remarks come in the wake of the department's Aug. 1 announcement that new health care plans must cover contraceptives and sterilizations under regulations for preventive care created in response to the 2010 health care legislation.
Sr. Walsh said that although the mandate provides an exemption for religious employers – which is at least “a tacit acknowledgment that this violates the Constitution's cherished respect for religious liberty” – there is still “a catch.”
“The church agency can only claim exemption if it primarily serves people of its own faith,” she explained. “It also must meet other requirements, such as employing mostly people of its own faith.”
What this means, Sr. Walsh said, is that the department “is setting itself up to determine what constitutes church ministry and who Jesus meant when he referred to serving 'the least of my brethren.'”
The spokeswoman noted that Catholic hospitals, charities and educational institutions provide about $30 billion worth of service annually in the country, and that no one “presents a baptismal certificate at the emergency room.”
“The hungry do not recite the Creed to get groceries at the food pantry,” she added. “Students can pursue learning at The Catholic University of America, Villanova or any other Catholic college without passing a catechism admissions test.”
“The commitment to serve those in need, the sick, the hungry, the uneducated, is intrinsic to Catholicism,” she underscored.
Sr. Walsh added that Catholic hospitals admit about 5.6 million people annually, “one out of every six persons seeking hospital care in the United States,” with Catholic Charities serving more than 9 million people a year.
“No federal rule says the church must limit its service to Catholics if it is to be true to its teaching,” she said, adding that the department “doesn't get the parable of the Good Samaritan, who helped the stranger simply because he was in need.”
Sr. Walsh also noted that Catholic colleges and universities teach 850,000 students annually which include Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, atheists, agnostics “and members of any other religious or irreligious group you can name.”
She added that for the time being, the department has “given itself wiggle room” by saying that the public in the next two months can suggest an “alternative” definition of a “religious employer.”
“That's good because health care reform ought to increase access to basic care, not push religious groups to either violate their principles or abandon service to those in need whatever their religious beliefs.”
“Meanwhile, the sanctuary is getting crowded. It is time,” she added, for the department “to remove itself.”