The fight to protect Catholic institutions from the Obama administration’s new health-insurance mandate is not only a dispute over contraception and abortion. For many colleges, schools, and charities, it is a fight for the right to be Catholic.
If the outrageously narrow “religious employer exemption” put forward by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is allowed to stand, America’s concept of religious freedom under the First Amendment will be dangerously altered. It can have an impact far beyond health care, to issues such as employment benefits for homosexual partners, the National Labor Relations Board’s jurisdiction over union disputes with Catholic schools, and federal grants for Catholic social services.
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That’s why the U.S. bishops, with great urgency, launched their national campaign over the weekend to protest the new regulations. Bulletin inserts were sent to state Catholic conferences and parishes across America, asking Catholics to write to HHS before the agency stops accepting comments on September 30. (The process is quick and easy — see the bishops’ website here.)
And for weeks before that, Daniel Cardinal DiNardo of Galveston-Houston and a variety of Catholic organizations — including the Cardinal Newman Society, Catholic Vote, the National Catholic Bioethics Center, the Catholic Hospital Association, and others — have warned of the great danger to the Church posed by the Obama administration’s redefinition of religious freedom.
The problem? Not only has HHS mandated that insurance plans must provide free sterilization and contraception to women — which includes several FDA-approved drugs that may act as abortifacients — the mandate applies even to many Catholic institutions.
That’s because the very narrow religious exemption that HHS included in the regulations protects only “churches, their integrated auxiliaries, and conventions or associations of churches” and “the exclusively religious activities of any religious order.” That excludes any Catholic apostolate that is not legally owned by the Church — which, in the United States, is most of the Catholic nonprofits outside of dioceses, parishes, and parochial schools.
Moreover, the mandate is imposed on religious apostolates that are not established for the “inculcation of religious values,” such as social service agencies. Exemption also depends on hiring and serving “primarily persons who share the religious tenets of the organization,” leaving the definition of “primarily” to the whims of federal bureaucrats.
Looming over the entire exemption is the regulation’s language that HHS “may” exempt churches within the provision’s narrow scope. Nothing aside from the government’s interest in avoiding a court battle stands in the way of simply refusing to exempt even a Catholic diocese from the contraceptive mandate.
Then there’s the particular case of Catholic colleges, which are hit especially hard. According to an analysis by public interest lawyers at the Alliance Defense Fund, described in a memo commissioned by the Cardinal Newman Society, the HHS rules apply to all insurance for non-employees, including students.
“This may exacerbate conscience violations in states that require health insurance for full-time college students, to the extent that any plan compliant with the state coverage mandate is itself subject to the HHS abortifacient mandate,” write attorneys Matthew Bowman and Kevin Theriot.
In fact, the HHS regulations were implemented immediately in August — an extraordinary move that allows public comment only after the rules are already in force — precisely because HHS wanted to ensure that students quickly receive free coverage for birth control and sterilization.
“Many college student policy years begin in August and an estimated 1.5 million young adults are estimated to be covered by such policies,” HHS noted in the Federal Register announcement of the guidelines. “Providing an opportunity for public comment…would mean that many students could not benefit from the new prevention coverage without cost-sharing following from the issuance of the guidelines until the 2013-14 school year, as opposed to the 2012-13 school year.”
College girls will be able to go on the Pill, obtain an IUD, or undergo a tubal ligation on college health plans without a co-pay. And many Catholic families who send their Catholic girls to Catholic colleges seeking a Catholic campus environment will find that students’ sexual exploits are subsidized by a college insurance plan.
The simple fact of the matter is that the Obama administration is threatening the religious liberty of even the most faithful of Catholic institutions. These threats come from not only from HHS; they come from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which claims Belmont Abbey College violated federal nondiscrimination laws by refusing insurance coverage for contraception. They come from the National Labor Relations Board, which has claimed jurisdiction over Catholic colleges’ union negotiations. They come through the Education Department, which issued new regulations forcing states to be more proactive in chartering colleges, thereby tying student aid to a potentially political process that threatens overtly religious colleges. And there is increasing state discrimination against religious institutions with regard to same-sex marriage and contraception.
Catholics nationwide need to stand up and demand that the Obama Administration repeal the new health-care regulations that blatantly violate our religious freedom. The bishops have made it simple at their website here.