.- As scores of lawsuits against the federal contraception mandate continue to move through the courts, the head of the U.S. bishops’ conference has voiced renewed commitment to defending religious liberty.
“The bishops have made clear their strong, unified commitment to protecting religious freedom,” said Kim Daniels, spokesperson for Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“The HHS mandate restricts the ability of Catholic apostolates to witness to our faith in its fullness,” she told CNA, “a witness that is at the core of their ministry.”
The mandate – issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – requires nearly all employers to offer health insurance covering free contraception, sterilizations, and some drugs that may cause early abortions.
The policy has sparked serious concerns and led to lawsuits from more than 200 plaintiffs, including religious schools, charities, hospitals and private individuals who do not qualify for the narrow religious exemption included in the mandate but say that facilitating the required products and procedures forces them to violate the teachings of their faith.
Following a Sept. 10-11 meeting of the Administrative Committee of the U.S. bishops’ conference, Cardinal Dolan wrote a letter to his fellow bishops throughout the country.
He explained that the conference will continue to fight against the mandate, saying that it “is a fight that we didn't ask for, and would rather not be in, but it’s certainly one that we won’t run from.”
Responding to religious freedom concerns over the mandate, the Obama administration instituted a series of delays and revisions, creating an “accommodation” for some religious employers to have the objectionable products provided indirectly to their employees through a third-party insurer.
According to the administration, contraceptives and similar products can be provided for free because of the “tremendous health benefits” they provide women and the reduced costs that will result from having fewer children. Critics have questioned this premise, however, arguing that the products will ultimately have a cost that will likely be passed on to the objecting employer through increased insurance premiums.
Cardinal Dolan voiced concern over the D.C.-based Catholic Health Association’s “hurried acceptance of the accommodation, which was, I’m afraid, untimely and unhelpful.”
He said that he appreciated the organization’s “great expertise in their ministry of healing, but as they have been the first to say, they do not represent the Magisterium of the Church.”
“Even in their document stating that they could live with the ‘accommodation’ they remarked that we bishops, along with others, have wider concerns than they do,” he explained.
The bishops’ conference did not immediately respond to the finalized version of the mandate, saying instead that they would take time to morally and legally analyze the 110-page document.
After doing so, the bishop stated that the final version had “only minor changes” and was still plagued by the same basic problems as the original version.
In his letter, Cardinal Dolan highlighted these problems, noting that the exemption included in the mandate is based on a narrow definition of “religious employers” as houses of worship and their affiliated groups, leaving religious service ministries to be given “second-class treatment” under the lesser provisions of the accommodation, which he labeled inadequate.
At the same time, he observed, the revised mandate fails to give “any relief at all to for-profit businesses run by so many of our faithful in the pews.”
The cardinal noted that “Catholic Church in America has long been a leader in providing affordable health care, and in advocating for policies that advance that goal,” noting that Catholic religious brothers and sisters have been at the forefront of providing health care to those who need it.
“Yet, instead of spending our time, energy, and treasure on increasing access to health care, as we have done for many decades,” he continued, “we’re now forced to spend those resources on determining how to respond to recently enacted government regulations that restrict and burden our religious freedom.”
The mandate dampens the ability of these ministries to witness through their services, a central part of the Catholic mission, Cardinal Dolan said, stressing the bishops are continuing to work through venues including Congress and the courts “to develop avenues of response that would both preserve our strong unity and protect our consciences.”
Mixed rulings on lawsuits challenging the mandate have led some observers to suggest that the Supreme Court may soon decide rule on the regulation.
Further discussion on how to address the contraception mandate will take place at the bishops’ fall plenary assembly this November in Baltimore, Cardinal Dolan stated.
“We are united in our resolve to continue to defend our right to live by our faith, and our duty to serve the poor, heal the sick, keep our apostolates strong and faithful, and insure our people,” he affirmed.