Americans encouraged to join mounting opposition to mandate

HHS logo CNA US Catholic News 4 2 13

With six days remaining to file public comments on the federal contraception mandate, one Catholic leader is calling on Americans to join more than 140,000 concerned citizens in speaking out against the regulation.

Brian Burch, president of non-partisan advocacy group Catholic Vote, told CNA on April 2 that "input from the public is essential to making the case that the mandate must be repealed."

Catholic Vote said in an email to its supporters that "as of Easter Sunday 80,901 people have registered comments on the latest HHS proposal, bringing the total comments the proposed 'accommodation' to 147,000."

According to Catholic Vote, this is "the largest number of comments on a government regulation in our nation's history."

In January 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that it would require nearly all private insurance plans to offer free contraception, sterilization and some abortion-inducing drugs.

The announcement was immediately controversial and has led to lawsuits from more than 150 employers, non-profit organizations and other groups and individuals who claim that the mandate violates their religious freedom by forcing them to act against their deeply-held religious convictions.

Although a religious exemption was included in the mandate, it was narrowly worded and would not apply to most religious organizations, such as schools, hospitals and charitable groups. Nor would it offer any protection to for-profit businesses run by religious individuals.

After a wave of protest, the federal government announced that it would offer an "accommodation" for the religious freedom of non-profit groups.

Over the past year, the accommodation has gone through various stages of development. Initial proposals from the government were criticized as an "accounting gimmick" that would fail to adequately address religious liberty concerns.

Under the proposed accommodation, insurance companies would offer coverage of contraception and related products for free. The government argued that such coverage can be given for no cost because women enjoy "tremendous" health benefits from contraception and will have fewer children as a result, leading to lower overall healthcare costs.

However, opponents argue that the objectionable products and procedures will ultimately be funded through increased premiums paid by the objecting religious employers.

The final details of the accommodation have not yet been worked out but will be released in coming months. The new policy will go into effect for religious employers on Aug. 1, 2013.

Each major stage in the mandate revision process has included a period for the public to file comments on the proposed changes. The current comment period is open until April 8.

Burch explained that the record number of comments "demonstrates that Americans have deep reservations over the reach of the mandate and that a sufficient number of people believe it is misguided, unconstitutional, and that the mandate ought to be revisited."

He added that lawmakers "and the courts are both actively looking at the impact of the proposed mandate and how it might impact the religious freedom of both religiously affiliated institutions, but also individual citizens."

"The Administration has every right to ignore the wishes of the public and proceed with the regulation as proposed," he said, "but the number of comments sends an unmistakable message to elected officials, and even to the courts, that the regulation is deeply divisive and deserving of careful evaluation before proceeding." 

Burch also encouraged more individuals to submit comments to the government before the upcoming deadline.

Those who wish to submit comments on the mandate can do so at the government's regulation comment website.

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"Failure to respond adequately will send the unfortunate message that Americans are ready to roll over and accept the mandate as proposed," he warned.

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