.- Leaders of the U.S. bishops have written to lawmakers insisting on the importance of including religious liberty protections and the conscience rights of health care workers as part of government funding negotiations.
“Protection for conscience rights in health care is of especially great importance to the Catholic Church, which daily contributes to the welfare of U.S. society through schools, social services, hospitals and assisted living facilities,” wrote Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley of Boston and Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore in a Sept. 26 letter.
The bishops wrote regarding the federal contraception mandate – issued by the Department of Health and Human Services – which requires employers to provide employee health coverage for sterilization and contraception, as well as drugs which can cause early abortions.
While the mandate has a narrow exemption for religious employers, many Catholic institutions do not meet the government's criteria. More than 200 plaintiffs across the country have filed lawsuits challenging the mandate, and some legal analysts believe the Supreme Court will take up the case in the coming months.
Cardinal O'Malley and Archbishop Lori – who head the U.S. bishops’ pro-life committee and religious liberty committee, respectively – reminded the nation’s lawmakers that the bishops “strongly support universal access to health care.” However, they said, “such access is threatened by Congress' continued failure to protect the right of conscience.”
They applauded the provisions of the Health Care Conscience Rights Act, which was introduced earlier this year by Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.).
Key elements of this bill should be incorporated into “must-pass” legislation as Congress considers a continuing resolution to prevent a government shut-down, the bishops said.
Their letter comes amid pressing discussions over the funding of the federal government, which will run out at the end of Sept. 30. If an agreement is not reached between Democrats and Republicans, non-essential government services will cease at the end of the day Monday.
On Sept. 29, the Republican-led House of Representatives passed a government spending bill which would delay much of the 2010 health care law – including the contraception mandate – for another year. The bill also includes accommodations allowing employers to decline to provide insurance coverage for products and procedures to which they morally or religiously objected.
Harry Reid, a Democrat and the Senate majority leader, maintained that the upper chamber would reject the House bill.
In addition to the issue of funding the federal government, it is likely that health care and religious liberty will play into debates over the debt ceiling, which Treasury secretary Jack Lew expects to be met by Oct. 17.
Several Catholic conferences in states across the nation have encouraged Catholics to contact their representatives and senators to ask that they support the inclusion of conscience protections in legislation on government funding and raising the debt ceiling.
Cardinal O'Malley and Archbishop Lori urged that Catholic institutions serving the common good “should not be told by government to abandon or compromise those convictions in order to continue serving their own employees or the neediest Americans.”
“Nor should individual Catholics or others be told they cannot legally purchase or provide health coverage unless they violate their conscience.”
They noted that non-profit religious groups ineligible for the mandate’s narrow religious exemption are only beginning to have their cases heard in court, but will be subject to the mandate’s requirements on Jan. 1, 2014.
“Those who help provide health care, and those who need such care for themselves and their families, should not be forced to choose between preserving their religious and moral integrity and participating in our health care system,” said the bishops.