Catholic leaders criticize ‘profoundly troubling’ contraception mandate

Catholic clergy, university presidents and health care leaders are saying the Obama administration’s decision to mandate contraceptive coverage in health care plans without a broad religious exemption fails to protect the conscience rights of many Americans.

“The inalienable rights guaranteed in our country's founding documents are being trampled,” lamented Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit. “Where is the 'liberty' in a decision to intrude on freedom of conscience? The Constitution speaks of ‘freedom of religion,’ not ‘freedom from religion’.” 

He said the Department of Health and Human Services is forcing insurers and insurance purchasers to “choose whether or not to violate their moral and religious beliefs.”

The archbishop urged lawmakers to defend the rights of citizens against a “truly unconscionable” government mandate.

University of Notre Dame president Fr. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., said he was “deeply disappointed” by the decision, saying it will place many religious organizations in “an untenable position.”

“This unnecessary intervention by the government into religion disregards our nation’s commitment to the rights of conscience and the longstanding work of religious groups to help build a more compassionate society and vibrant democracy. I find that profoundly troubling on many levels,” he said Jan. 20.

Fr. Jenkins called for a national dialogue among religious groups, government and the American people to “reaffirm our country’s historic respect for freedom of conscience and defense of religious liberty.”

The Department of Health and Human Services on Jan. 20 announced the Obama administration would not expand a religious exemption for employers who object to a requirement that insurance plans cover contraception as part of “preventative services.” The policy requires free coverage for sterilization and contraception, including some drugs that can cause abortions.

The policy provides a religious exemption only for organizations that employ and primarily serve members of their own faith and that have the inculcation of religious values as their primary purpose.

Sr. Carol Keehan, D.C., president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, said her organization is “disappointed” that HHS did not broaden its definition of a religious employer.

“This was a missed opportunity to be clear on appropriate conscience protection,” she said Jan. 20.

Sr. Keehan, who broke from the U.S. bishops to support the health care legislation which authorized the HHS action, said the challenge religious groups face under the bill is “unresolved.” She said there is a need for an “effective national conversation” on the “appropriate conscience protections” in the U.S., which she said has “always respected the role of religions.”

Catholic League president Bill Donohue said that many of those who side with legal abortion advocates also adhere to the “very American principle of respecting conscience rights.”

“(W)hen these issues collide, the latter proves decisive,” he said Jan. 23.

Donohue cited critics of the new policy such as the editorial board of the Washington Post, whose Jan. 23 editorial said that requiring a religiously affiliated employer to spend its own money against its religious principles “does not make an adequate accommodation for those deeply held views.”

“The Obama administration made a fatal flaw when it assumed that most people are not going to get worked up about healthcare plans that carry contraceptive coverage,” he said.

“There is a high price paid for arrogance in politics. Stay tuned—this issue isn’t going to go away.”

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