US bishops say draft religious freedom rule 'long overdue'

The White House. Credit: solomonjee/Shuttrstock.
The White House. Credit: solomonjee/Shuttrstock.

.- A draft federal rule from the Trump administration regarding the contraception mandate is “encouraging news” that could help return federal health care policy to a better approach toward matters of conscience, the U.S. bishops have said.

“Regulations like these reflect common sense, and what had been the consistent practice of the federal government for decades to provide strong conscience protection in the area of health care,” Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chair of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, said June 1.

The bishops voiced hope that the final version of the regulations would remain strong. The bishops’ conference will analyze the final version in a more careful manner for more formal comment.

“Throughout, our goal will remain to protect both the conscience of individuals and our mission of sharing the Gospel and serving the poor and vulnerable through our ministries,” the bishops said.

Their comments responded to a 125-page draft memo of a religious liberty rule reportedly under consideration at the Department of Health and Human Services. The memo, dated May 23, was leaked and posted to the Vox news and opinion site.

The rule would add to, not replace, an Obama-era HHS rule, announced in late 2011, that required employers’ health plans to include coverage of sterilization and contraception. The mandate included some contraceptives that can cause abortion.

The initial rule’s religious exemption was so narrow it only exempted houses of worship, drawing widespread objections and lawsuits from more than 300 plaintiffs. Among those suing over the mandate is EWTN Global Catholic Network. CNA is part of the EWTN family.

Subsequent revisions allowed changes to the mandate for some religious entities. However, groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor objected that the rule still required their complicity in providing such coverage, which violates their religious and moral ethics. Refusal to comply with the current rule would result in heavy fines.

While the U.S. bishops noted the rule is still not approved, they said it is “long overdue.”

“If issued, these regulations would appropriately broaden the existing exemption to a wider range of stakeholders with religious or moral objections to the mandated coverage – not just houses of worship,” said Archbishop Lori, speaking on behalf of the U.S. bishops.

“This not only would eliminate an unwarranted governmental division of our religious community ‘between our houses of worship and our great ministries of service to our neighbors,’ but would also lift the government-imposed burden on our ministries ‘to violate their own teachings within their very own institutions’.” they said, citing the bishops’ 2012 statement “United for Religious Freedom.”

Other support for the draft rule came from Mark L. Rienzi, an attorney at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the legal group that represents the Little Sisters of the Poor.

He told a May 31 press call that the draft rule acknowledges that, given how widely available the mandated products are, “there is simply no need for the government to force unwilling religious groups who serve the poor to provide them or to pay massive fines that would shut down these types of ministries.”

In 2014, the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision ruled that the mandate violated the religious freedom of closely-held private companies; but this did not apply to the Little Sisters’ case, as their organization is a non-profit.

In May 2016, the Supreme Court ordered a lower court to re-hear the nuns’ case, a decision considered a technical win for the Little Sisters.

Tags: Contraception mandate, USCCB, HHS

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