.- Numerous religious leaders slammed the Obama administration for violating consciences by refusing to reverse a contraception mandate and instead delay its full implementation by only a year.
“Never before has the federal government forced individuals and organizations to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience,” said Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of the U.S. bishops’ conference.
“This shouldn’t happen in a land where free exercise of religion ranks first in the Bill of Rights.”
He called the decision “literally unconscionable” in a Jan. 20 response statement and said that the government is essentially “saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences.”
The cardinal-designate vowed that the bishops will work to overturn the mandate and institute freedom of conscience protections for all Americans.
On Jan. 20, Department of Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced that the administration would not expand a religious exemption for employers who object to its “preventative services” mandate.
The policy, originally introduced in an Aug. 2011 interim rule, requires health insurance plans to cover contraception – including drugs that cause abortion – and sterilization free of charge.
To qualify for a religious exemption under the policy, religious organizations must employ and serve primarily members of their own faith and must exist for the purpose of teaching religious values.
Many religious organizations objected to the rule, saying that they would not qualify because they provide education, health care and other services to people of all religions.
But the Obama administration dismissed their requests, saying that the religious exemption would not be expanded.
In what she described as an “appropriate balance” between religious freedom and “preventative services,” Sebelius announced that religious employers who object to providing the coverage will have an additional year to do so.
They will be required to comply with the new law by Aug. 1, 2013, one year later than the original deadline.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State said it was “grateful” that the Obama administration had rejected the arguments of “powerful religious lobbies that are bent on imposing their theology on everyone.”
However, religious groups across the country are arguing that the mandate violates their rights of religion and conscience.
“This is nothing less than a direct attack on religion and First Amendment rights,” said Franciscan Sister Jane Marie Klein, chairman of Franciscan Alliance, Inc., a system of 13 Catholic hospitals.
“I cannot understand it at all.”
“We are very disappointed in the decision,” added Galen Carey, vice president of Government Relations for the National Association of Evangelicals.
Carey told CNA on Jan. 20 that the mandate “fails to uphold” America’s “historic commitment” to religious liberty.
In December, the National Association of Evangelicals sent a letter to President Obama on behalf of more than 60 evangelical, Baptist and Jewish leaders.
The letter objected to the mandate, arguing that “the Federal government is obligated by the First Amendment to accommodate the religious convictions of faith-based organizations of all kinds.”
Carey said the association will continue to speak up and work with lawmakers in the hopes that Congress will pursue legislation that will restore protection to the religious liberty of all Americans.
Dr. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said that the “outrageous” decision meant “bad news” for the protection of religious liberty and freedom of conscience in America.
“It’s analogous to giving a man on death row a one-year stay of execution,” he said. “You can follow your conscience for one more year.”
Dr. Land added that the decision will likely lead many people “to hope and pray” that a new administration will be in place “to provide a reprieve from this squelching of conscience before the deadline arrives.”