Pennsylvania bishops blast HHS contraception rule as indefensible
By Benjamin Mann
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput

.- The Catholic Bishops of Pennsylvania are speaking out against rules that could mandate contraception and sterilization in new health plans, calling them an indefensible assault on conscience and freedom.

“There is no reasonable defense for a coercive approach to contraception in health insurance coverage,” Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said in a Sept. 29 statement. “The Health and Human Services mandate is not simply 'bad' social policy, but precedent-setting in its disregard for conscience rights.”

The Department of Health and Human Services' proposed rules, formulated in response to the 2010 federal health care law, were announced Aug. 1 and are open to comment until Sept. 30. They require nearly all new health plans, including those of most religious groups, to cover government-approved methods of contraception and surgical sterilization.

In their official public response filed with the Department of Health and Human Services, the Pennsylvania bishops noted that the supposed “religious exemption” included in the mandate “fails miserably to assure that religious conscience is protected.”

The exemption for religious groups, they said, “is so narrowly crafted that hospitals, universities, religious affiliated social service agencies, Catholic dioceses, parishes and even Catholic elementary schools would be subject to the contraceptive/sterilization mandate.”

“Ignoring the broad nature of the Church's religious ministries and the care, services and education provided to a diverse group by mandating coverage is an unwarranted attack on religion in general,” they said.

Besides the effort to force Catholic ministries to provide contraception and sterilization, the rule also raises the question of government deciding whether an institution is “religious” in nature or not. The Pennsylvania Catholic Health Association, which joined the bishops in condemning the contraceptive mandate, described the government's attempt to define religious activity as “fraught with danger.”

In the response its officials filed with the Department of Health and Human Services, the health association said the contraceptive mandate “ignores this nation's foundations which were built upon freedom of conscience and freedom of religion,” with a proposed rule that “directly violates the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

Pennsylvania's Catholic bishops noted that the proposed mandate would harm the religious integrity of institutions that millions of people rely upon.

Within Pennsylvania’s dioceses there are “over 3. 2 million Catholics; over 1,000 parishes; nearly 500 Catholic schools; 27 Catholic colleges; nearly 100 Catholic social service agencies; 14 Catholic hospitals; 34 long-term care facilities, numerous health care systems and other related health care entities,” they told the federal department.

“The interim rule is one of significant impact upon the Church in Pennsylvania and that impact will not go unnoticed within the vast Catholic community.”

Philadelphia's bishops and health care association join 19 Catholic universities and colleges, as well as the U.S. bishops and numerous other Catholic organizations that have reacted strongly against the proposed contraception mandate.

In a Sept. 30 Washington Post editorial, Catholic University of America President John Garvey wrote that it “does not take a college education to see the hypocrisy in offering to pay for the very services we condemn in our theology classes and seek forgiveness for in our sacraments.”

Garvey said it “should not be the business of the federal government to force Catholic schools and other Catholic institutions into such a collective violation of our own conscientious beliefs.”

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