On Feb. 1, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released a notice of accommodations to the controversial mandate, which requires religious organizations to cover contraception, sterilization and abortion-causing drugs in insurance policies.
"Throughout the past year, we have been assured by the Administration that we will not have to refer, pay for, or negotiate for the mandated coverage. We remain eager for the Administration to fulfill that pledge and to find acceptable solutions -- we will affirm any genuine progress that is made, and we will redouble our efforts to overcome obstacles or setbacks," said Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the bishops' conference (USCCB), in a statement today. "Thus, we welcome and will take seriously the Administration's invitation to submit our concerns through formal comments, and we will do so in the hope that an acceptable solution can be found that respects the consciences of all. At the same time, we will continue to stand united with brother bishops, religious institutions, and individual citizens who seek redress in the courts for as long as this is necessary."
The cardinal listed three key areas of concern: the narrow understanding of a religious ministry; compelling church ministries to fund and facilitate "services" such as contraceptives, abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization; and disregard of the conscience rights of for-profit business owners. These are the same concerns articulated by the USCCB Administrative Committee in its March 2012 statement, United for Religious Freedom. That statement was backed by the whole group of bishops at their spring assembly last June.
Cardinal Dolan said the new proposal seemed to address one part of the church's concern over the definition of a church ministry but stressed that "the Administration's proposal maintains its inaccurate distinction among religious ministries."
"It appears to offer second-class status to our first-class institutions in Catholic health care, Catholic education and Catholic charities. HHS offers what it calls an 'accommodation' rather than accepting the fact that these ministries are integral to our church and worthy of the same exemption as our Catholic churches."
Cardinal Dolan highlighted problems with the proposed "accommodation."
"It appears that the government would require all employees in our 'accommodated' ministries to have the illicit coverage -- they may not opt out, nor even opt out for their children -- under a separate policy," he said.
He also noted that "because of gaps in the proposed regulations, it is still unclear how directly these separate policies would be funded by objecting ministries, and what precise role those ministries would have in arranging for these separate policies. Thus, there remains the possibility that ministries may yet be forced to fund and facilitate such morally illicit activities."
Cardinal Dolan also said the proposal refuses to acknowledge conscience rights of business owners who operate their businesses according to their faith and moral values.
"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," Cardinal Dolan said. "We cannot now abandon them to be forced to violate their morally well-informed consciences."
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On ZENIT's Web page:
Full text of the statement: www.zenit.org/en/articles/us-bishops-respond-to-proposed-modifications-to-insurance-mandate