.- Several Catholics known for supporting Obama administration policies are opposing the lack of religious conscience protections in rules requiring most new health plans to cover contraception and sterilization.
In an open letter issued August 26, the self-described “ad hoc group of Catholic leaders and professors” called on Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius “to extend conscience protection to religious charities, religious hospitals, and religious schools in regards to mandated health insurance coverage” under the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
The signatories - many of whom also signed an earlier letter criticizing House Speaker John Boehner in May - cited the First Amendment’s protection of religious activity, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s ban on religious discrimination, to argue for broader religious exceptions.
On August 1, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that only certain religious institutions could opt out of providing contraception, under the heading of “women’s preventive services,” in their new health plans.
To be exempt, an organization must have “the inculcation of religious values as its purpose,” must primarily employ “persons who share its religious tenets,” and must serve primarily “persons who share its religious tenets.”
The U.S. Catholic bishops, who oppose the mandate altogether, have criticized the proposed rules, while also noting the basic inappropriateness of regarding fertility as a condition in need of “prevention.” The St. Gianna Physician’s Guild, a Catholic medical organization, has pointed out that the mandate will increase the already substantial demand for abortion due to failed contraception.
In their letter to Sebelius, the group of Catholic academics and activists - including Professors Fr. Thomas Reese of Georgetown, Lisa Sowle Cahill of Boston College, Margaret Steinfels of Fordham, and Nicholas Cafardi of Duquesne- stopped short of criticizing the mandate itself. They focused instead on its need for revision, due to religious guidelines they called “too restrictive.”
“Catholic charities and Catholic hospitals do not fit the rule’s definition of religious organization,” they noted. “Catholic schools, colleges, and universities also might not fit the current definition.”
The letter’s leading author, who also organized the Boehner letter, is Catholic University of America Professor Stephen Scheck. In 2009, Schneck lent his support to a “Catholics for Sebelius” initiative, supporting the Obama nominee whose bishop told her not to receive Communion over her abortion record.
Professors Schneck, Reese, Cahill, Steinfels, and Cafardi all signed a 2009 letter calling Sebelius “a woman of deep faith” whose “record of building the common good” made her “an excellent candidate for HHS Secretary.”
Unlike the recent letter to Boehner - in which Scheck, Reese, Cahill, and many others accused the Catholic speaker of proposing “anti-life” budget cuts that contradicted “the Church’s most ancient moral teachings” - the letter to Sibelius took a restrained tone.
It contains one brief reference to “the Catholic Church’s ancient mission to the poor and the sick,” and no reference to Catholic teaching on contraception and sterilization.
Instead, the authors cited Title 26 of the United States Code, noting that it offered “appropriate guidance for defining religious organizations” that should qualify for an exemption from the birth control mandate.
By this definition, a “non-profit religious, educational, or charitable organization” that has “bona fide religious purposes or reasons” and “holds itself out to the public as a religious organization” should qualify.
The language of Title 26, they said “more fully reflects the intentions of the First Amendment and the Civil Rights Act as they pertain to matters of religious conscience.”
Sebelius’ narrow religious exemptions have also received criticism from Sister Carol Keehan, head of the Catholic Health Association, who publicly supported the Affordable Care Act that led to their drafting. On August 4, Sr. Keehan said she was “very concerned” with exemptions that were “not broad enough to protect our Catholic health providers.”
In terms stronger than those used in the academics’ August 26 letter, Sr. Keehan said it was “critical” that Catholic hospitals “be allowed to serve our nation without compromising our conscience.”