The Obama administration has announced a requirement that all new insurance plans must cover contraceptives and sterilization. However, the religious exemptions are so narrow that they could force Catholic charities, health care providers and educational institutions to cover services they regard as sinful, Catholic leaders warned.

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston said Aug. 1 that the stated exemption is “so narrow as to exclude most Catholic social services and healthcare providers.”

The only situation where Catholic institutions would be free to act in accord with their religious beliefs is “if they were to stop hiring and serving non-Catholics,” said the cardinal, who chairs the U.S. bishops’ committee on pro-life activities.

The Department of Health and Human Services said on Aug. 1 that the guidelines, which were created in response to the 2010 health care law, require new health insurance plans to cover “women’s preventive services.” These include breastfeeding support, domestic violence screening and contraception without charging a co-payment, co-insurance or a deductible.

The Obama administration also released a proposed amendment that allows religious institutions “that offer insurance to their employees” the choice of whether to cover contraceptive services.

“This regulation is modeled on the most common accommodation for churches available in the majority of the 28 states that already require insurance companies to cover contraception. HHS welcomes comment on this policy,” the department said.

The exemptions cover a non-profit religious employer whose purpose is “the inculcation of religious values,” which primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets, and which primarily serves those who share its religious tenets.

“Our religious freedom is under attack,” warned Patrick J. Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society. He said that the guidelines “would force Catholic colleges to violate the law or violate the Catholic faith.”

Colleges may be forced to help students and employees obtain free contraceptives and sterilization, he added.

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The exemption language is “ambiguous” and “likely to be interpreted with a bias against Catholic agencies.” Reilly said. He speculated that federal officials could define whether a Catholic college primarily serves Catholics based on its student body statistics.

Catholic University of America president John Garvey wrote an open letter on the regulation proposals that was published in the Jesuits’ America Magazine on Aug. 1.

“Employers, employees, and issuers who have moral and religious objections to sterilization, contraception, and abortion are now free to have health care coverage that excludes these practices,” Garvey noted. But a mandate by the government to require coverage for these service “would break both old and new promises to deprive them of that liberty,” he wrote.

The Catholic University president worried that the United States’ “distinguished record of liberal toleration might soon come to an end.”

Jeanne Monahan, director of the Family Research Council’s Center for Human Dignity, said the conscience protections are a “fig leaf” that targets certain churches that fulfill “very specific criteria.”

“This administration is promoting mandates that will violate the consciences of millions,” she said on Aug. 1.

Religious groups that provide social services, those that engage in missions work to people of different religious faiths, religious health insurance companies, and religious health care providers are “not protected from any discrimination whatever,” Monahan explained.

She also noted that the mandate will include FDA-approved drugs like Ella and Plan B, which can “destroy a developing baby” before or after implantation in the mother’s womb.

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Both Garvey and the Family Research Council have backed the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act of 2011, sponsored by Reps. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) and Dan Boren (D-Okla.).

Garvey said the bill is a measure that “everyone who cares about religious liberty can support” and would prevent any new mandates in last year’s health care legislation from “infringing upon the rights of conscience.”

Cardinal DiNardo also backed the conscience protection legislation in a July 19 statement issued while the HHS was still considering possible regulations.

The U.S. bishops’ pro-life chairman also defended Catholic teaching against contraceptives and sterilizations in the same statement. “Pregnancy is not a disease, and fertility is not a pathological condition to be suppressed by any means technically possible,” he said.

CNA contacted the Department of Health and Human Services for comment but did not receive a response.