The White House announced Friday that, despite outcry from many church organizations, they must offer birth control to employees and that such birth control provided in private insurance must be without out-of-pocket charges. Churches are exempt, but religious organizations say that is too narrow and that their hospitals and schools must also be exempt.
The Obama administration said that church organizations have a year to comply. Some have said that they are considering dropping health insurance coverage and paying fines to the government instead.
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The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and related Catholic organizations are outraged, calling the Health and Human Services rule an "edict" that requires them to violate their conscience.
Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, "To force American citizens to choose between violating their consciences and forgoing their healthcare is literally unconscionable. It is as much an attack on access to health care as on religious freedom. Historically this represents a challenge and a compromise of our religious liberty."
The HHS rule requires that sterilization and contraception – including abortifacients – be included among "preventive services" coverage in almost every healthcare plan available to Americans. "The government should not force Americans to act as if pregnancy is a disease to be prevented at all costs," added Cardinal-designate Dolan.
At issue, the U.S. bishops and other religious leaders insist, is the survival of a cornerstone constitutionally protected freedom that ensures respect for the conscience of Catholics and all other Americans.
"This is nothing less than a direct attack on religion and First Amendment rights," said Franciscan Sister Jane Marie Klein, chairperson of the board at Franciscan Alliance, Inc., a system of 13 Catholic hospitals. "I have hundreds of employees who will be upset and confused by this edict. I cannot understand it at all."
Daughter of Charity Sister Carol Keehan, president and chief executive officer of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, voiced disappointment with the decision. Catholic hospitals serve one out of six people who seek hospital care annually.
"This was a missed opportunity to be clear on appropriate conscience protection," Sister Keehan said.
Cardinal-designate Dolan urged that the HHS mandate be overturned.