.- The U.S. bishops said that the government’s latest recommendations on its federal contraception mandate fail to address religious freedom concerns.
In a March 29 memo, they said the mandate “still forces us to act against our conscience and teaching,” and that the only real solution is to allow individuals and institutions to offer insurance plans that align with their moral convictions.
No matter what mechanisms are chosen to fund and administrate the mandate, religious individuals and institutions will be prohibited from providing health coverage that is “consistent with their values,” the bishops explained.
In the memo, the bishops commented on the latest development in an ongoing controversy surrounding a federal mandate that will require employers to provide health insurance plans that cover contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs, even if doing so violates their conscience.
The mandate, announced on Jan. 20, has come under fire from numerous groups and individuals for infringing upon the religious freedom of those who object to such coverage.
A new advance notice of proposed rulemaking published by the Obama administration on March 21 outlines various recommendations for different ways to implement the mandate as it will apply to religious organizations that oppose the required coverage.
The administration has requested public comment on the proposals until June 19.
The bishops acknowledged that the “tentative and complex” proposals are very detailed and “demand further study.”
However, they said that their initial analysis suggests that they “are still faced with the same fundamental issues” identified in their previous statement, “United for Religious Freedom.”
The proposals offered by the administration highlight several possible approaches to having a “third-party administrator” assume responsibility for the controversial coverage.
The suggestions included the use of funds from drug rebates, credit from a reinsurance program, aid from non-profit organizations and government contracts with insurers offering a multi-state plan.
However, the bishops cautioned that these proposals do nothing to change the administration’s narrow “test for deciding which organizations are ‘religious enough’ to warrant an exemption from the mandate.”
Instead, the new recommendations deal with religious organizations that do not qualify for the exemption and are therefore subject to the mandate.
The bishops reaffirmed their stance that “the government has no place defining religion and religious ministry” and that the current attempt to do so is unconstitutional.
“So no matter what new rules may be proposed to apply this distinction, it remains radically flawed,” they said.
Rather than merely granting limited religious freedom under certain circumstances, the federal government must respect the fullness of religious liberty for both individuals and institutions, they insisted.
The bishops warned that the mandate “now poses a threat to the rights not only of religious employers but of parents as well.”
They noted that while the administration has claimed to promote women’s choice, the new recommendations leave women with no choice over whether their minor children will be offered “free” and “private” contraception and related “education and counseling.”
The suggested provisions even allow for the possibility of groups such as Planned Parenthood to take on the task of intervening into family life, regardless of whether the parents consent to them doing so.
The bishops observed that some of the more detailed proposals laid out by the administration “seem intended to lessen the degree of ‘cooperation in evil’ required of non-exempt religious organizations.”
However, they explained, “they do so by depriving these organizations of the ability to determine their employee and student benefits in accordance with their faith and moral teaching.”
By delegating the responsibilities associated with the coverage to other parties, they said, the government could be introducing parties that “are hostile to religious principles and the rights of parents.”
As a general principle, they added, “protecting a religious organization from being forced to act in conflict with its teaching by depriving it of the ability to act at all is no way to serve religious freedom.”
The bishops explained that they will be working to provide more detailed comments on the recommendations and are willing to continue meeting with the Obama administration to discuss them as well.
However, they added, the Church will also work with other religious groups to “seek relief from the legislature and redress in the courts.”