Obama reaffirms support for HHS mandate, downplays controversy

Obama Takes Two Day Campaign Swing Through Colorado Credit Marc Piscotty Getty Images News Getty Images CNA500x315 US Catholic News 8 8 12 President Obama speaks during a campaign stop at the Auraria Events Center August 8, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. | Marc Piscotty/Getty Images News/Getty Images

President Barack Obama reaffirmed his support for mandatory contraception coverage in a Wednesday campaign stop in Denver, drawing criticism from a lawyer representing a Colorado company fighting the mandate on religious freedom grounds.

Matt Bowman, legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, objected to the president's contention that offering exemptions to the mandatory coverage allows employers to control women.

"The only 'controlling' actions in this case involve the president's command that families abandon their faith just because they want to earn a living or serve their community," Bowman told CNA Aug. 8. "The government is picking and choosing what faith is and who can live it out, and then targeting religious people with massive penalties while bureaucrats exempt millions of other people for political reasons."

President Obama addressed a rally on the Auraria Campus in Denver. He criticized his opponent, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, for favoring legislation the president said would "allow any employer to deny contraceptive coverage to their employees."

"It would be up to the employer to decide. Your boss, telling you what's best for your health, your safety," the president said.

"I don't think your boss should get to control the health care that you get. I don't think that insurance companies should control the care that you get. I don't think politicians should control the care that you get."

The Department of Health and Human Services mandate requires most employers to provide insurance coverage for sterilization and contraception, including some abortion-causing drugs. It went into effect for many employers on Aug. 1.

The Alliance Defending Freedom religious liberty group is representing the Colorado-based Hercules Industries, a manufacturer of heating, ventilation and air conditioning units. The company's Catholic owners object to the mandated coverage, saying it violates their beliefs.

On July 27 a federal judge granted the company an injunction protecting it from the mandate.

The HHS mandate has prompted Catholic leaders and others to seek changes through Congress. The Blunt Amendment, which would have provided broad conscience exemptions for health care coverage providers, was killed in the U.S. Senate March 1 by a 51-48 vote.

President Obama contended in his Denver speech that the demand for exemptions comes from the "far right" of the Republican Party. However, three Democratic senators voted against killing the Blunt Amendment.

The lack of broad religious exemptions to the mandate has helped fan the controversy. The mandate would apply to many Catholic charities, health care systems, universities and even archdioceses. Over 40 Catholic institutions, including the University of Notre Dame, have challenged the mandate in courts around the country.

The mandate has also brought tens of thousands of people to nationwide protests and caused a diverse number of religious groups, including non-Christians, to decry the mandate's infringement on religious freedom.

While the Obama administration has said it will seek a better religious freedom accommodation, its details are still unclear and the mandate is already affecting many secular employers.

President Obama's Wednesday speech portrayed the religious freedom issue as settled.

"We recognize that many people have strongly held religious views on contraception, which is why we made sure churches and other houses of worship, they don't have to provide it, they don't have to pay for it," he said.

"We worked with the Catholic hospitals and universities to find a solution that protects both religious liberty and a woman's health."

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However, Catholic leaders insist more action is needed.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the chair of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities, renewed the call for broader conscience exemptions in an Aug. 3 letter to Congress.

"The fundamental importance of the religious freedom issue at stake demands a timely congressional response," Cardinal DiNardo said. "Through this mandate, the Administration is promoting an approach to religious freedom that is more grudging and arbitrary than any yet seen in federal law."

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