The U.S. bishops said that the Obama administration's suggested revisions to the federal contraception mandate fail to address the major religious liberty concerns they voiced last year.

While the federal government has indicated "that it is open to dialogue," there are still "serious issues that remain" in its most recent attempt to respond to the grave concerns raised by many Americans, said Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The cardinal explained in a Feb. 7 statement that the government's new proposals to modify the contraception mandate fall short of offering the necessary protections for religious freedom.

On Feb. 1, the Obama administration announced a plan to modify a federal mandate that requires employers to offer health insurance coverage of contraception, sterilization and some drugs that can cause early abortions.

The regulation has faced harsh criticism and is currently the subject of lawsuits from more than 130 plaintiffs, who claim that it violates their constitutional right to religious freedom.

Faced with a wave of criticism, the administration promised to change the religious exemption that protects some employers from the mandate and to offer an "accommodation" for the religious freedom of others.

Responding to the announcement, Cardinal Dolan turned to the bishops' statement last year, entitled United for Religious Freedom.

That statement, created by the bishops' administrative committee and adopted by the entire body of bishops, voiced concern over the "exceedingly narrow" definition of "religious employer" included within the mandate.

In its original form, the mandate offered a religious exemption only to nonprofit religious groups that exist for the purpose of inculcating religious values and that serve and employee primarily members of their own faith.

Under the new proposal, these requirements would be dropped and an employer would qualify for the exemption if it fell under Internal Revenue Code, Section 6033(a)(3)(A)(i) or (iii), which "refers to churches, their integrated auxiliaries, and conventions or associations of churches, as well as to the exclusively religious activities of any religious order."

The administration said that this "would primarily include churches, other houses of worship, and their affiliated organizations," giving the examples of a parochial school or a soup kitchen run by a house of worship.

The proposal "would not expand the universe of employer plans that would qualify for the exemption" beyond what was originally intended in the mandate, it explained.

Therefore, religious institutions that are not affiliated with a church – such as many Catholic health care, education and charity institutions – do not appear to be covered by the exemption. These groups still appear to be given "second-class status" that is not deemed worthy of a religious exemption, Cardinal Dolan said.

By dividing employers into difference classes, he explained, the administration is maintaining an "inaccurate distinction among religious ministries" and failing to accept "the fact that these ministries are integral to our Church and worthy of the same exemption as our Catholic churches."

Rather than an exemption, these non-profit religious organizations will be given an "accommodation" under which their employees receive free contraceptive coverage "through separate individual health insurance policies."

These separate policies would be provided by the organization's health insurance issuer, or in the case of a self-insured organization, a third-party administrator working with an insurance issuer.

According to the Obama administration, this coverage can be offered for free because the cost of the contraceptives would be offset by the "tremendous health benefits" that women enjoy from using contraception, along with the fewer childbirths that will result.

Critics have voiced doubt over these claims, arguing that the coverage will ultimately be funded through the premium payments of the objecting religious groups.

Cardinal Dolan explained that due to "gaps in the proposed regulations," which are still in their early stages, "it is still unclear how directly these separate policies would be funded by objecting ministries" and what exact role the ministries would have in arranging them.  

"Thus, there remains the possibility that ministries may yet be forced to fund and facilitate such morally illicit activities," he said, stressing the need for continued analysis and engagement with the government as it finalizes the regulation.

He also noted that the new proposals would appear to require all employees in the accommodated ministries to carry the contraceptive coverage under a separate policy, leaving them no option to opt out for themselves or their children.

Finally, the cardinal said, even with the proposed changes, the mandate still creates a "third class" of individuals seeking to live according to their faith and moral values in their day-to-day actions.

"This includes employers sponsoring and subsidizing the coverage, insurers writing it, and beneficiaries paying individual premiums for it," he observed.

The proposed revisions offer no protection to for-profit businesses owners who have religious or moral objections to the mandate. Nor do they cover non-profit groups that have no specific religious affiliation, such as many pro-life groups around the country.

The new announcement confirms that the administration "has no intention to provide any exemption or accommodation at all to this 'third class,'" Cardinal Dolan said.

"In obedience to our Judeo-Christian heritage, we have consistently taught our people to live their lives during the week to reflect the same beliefs that they proclaim on the Sabbath," he continued. "We cannot now abandon them to be forced to violate their morally well-informed consciences."

The U.S. bishops remain firm in their resolve to work with the administration towards an "an acceptable solution" that is in keeping with their "changeless values," affirming "any genuine progress that is made," while supporting those who are seeking relief from the mandate in court, the cardinal stressed.

"Because the stakes are so high, we will not cease from our effort to assure that healthcare for all does not mean freedom for few."