Obama Orders Catholics to Act Against Their Faith; Bishops Call it 'Unconscionable'

Terence P. Jeffrey | January 22, 2012 | 4:40pm EST
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First Lady Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama with Vice President Joe Biden and Jill Biden and former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Episcopal National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 21, 2009. (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) - The Obama administration on Friday finalized a regulation that orders all Americans—unless they work directly at a church--to purchase government-approved health insurance plans that cover sterilizations and all FDA-approved contraceptives including those that cause abortions.

The regulation further requires that health-insurance plans must provide sterilizations, contraceptives and abortifacients without any fees or co-pay.

The regulation, issued as part of the initial implementation of Obamacare, requires Catholics to act against their faith--which teaches that sterilization, artificial contraception and abortion violate the natural law and that Catholics cannot be involved in them.

In a statement, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops immediately condemned the administration's decision to move forward with the regulation as "literally unconscionable."

The regulation will go into effect on Aug. 1.

In December, the Republican leaders of the House of Representatives negotiated a continuing resolution with President Obama and the Democrat-controlled Senate that allows the administration to fund implementation of the regulation. That CR, which funds the government through the end of fiscal 2012 (which comes on Sept. 30), expressly denied the administration the funds to carry out some regulatory activities but did not deny it the funds to carry out the sterilization-contraception-abortifacient regulation.

In announcing the final version of the regulation on Friday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the administration would allow some non-profit groups, which object to the rule on religious grounds, an extra year to comply as long as these groups file a certification document with the administration and inform their employees about where they can find contraceptives.

“Nonprofit employers who, based on religious beliefs, do not currently provide contraceptive coverage in their insurance plan, will be provided an additional year, until August 1, 2013, to comply with the new law,” Sebelius said in a statement.

“Employers wishing to take advantage of the additional year must certify that they qualify for the delayed implementation,” Sebelius commanded.

“This additional year will allow these organizations more time and flexibility to adapt to this new rule," she said. "We intend to require employers that do not offer coverage of contraceptive services to provide notice to employees, which will also state that contraceptive services are available at sites such as community health centers, public clinics, and hospitals with income-based support. We will continue to work closely with religious groups during this transitional period to discuss their concerns.”

Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan, the archbishop of New York and the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was caustic in responding to administration’s extension and made clear that the church objects to the regulation as it applies to both groups and individual citizens.

“In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences,” Dolan said in a statement.

“To force American citizens to choose between violating their consciences and forgoing their healthcare is literally unconscionable,” said Dolan. “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."

According to the Associated Press, Obama personally called Dolan to inform the archbishop he had decided to move ahead with the federal sterilization-contraception-abortifacient mandate despite pleas from Dolan, the Catholic bishops, and prominent Catholic lay people that the mandate was an unambiguous and unprecedented attack on the free exercise of religion that is expressly guaranteed by the 1st Amendment.

To force faithful Catholics to provide and/or purchase insurance plans that cover sterilizations, artificial contraception and abortaficients--all of which Catholics believe violate the moral law--is to force them to act against the teachings of their church and their consciences and thus violates the constitutional right to free exercise of religion, Catholic leaders argued.

When HHS Secretary Sebelius first announced the regulation in August, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops submitted formal comments to HHS calling the regulation an “unprecedented attack on religious liberty” and urging the administration to rescind it.

"Indeed, such nationwide government coercion of religious people and groups to sell, broker, or purchase 'services' to which they have a moral or religious objection represents an unprecedented attack on religious liberty," the bishops told HHS.

The bishops also told HHS that a so-called religious exemption in the regulation was so narrowly drawn that it would not exempt Jesus Himself from being forced by the government to buy or provide coverage for sterilization, contraceptives and abortifacients.

The exemption, the bishops noted, holds that a church organization is "not a religious employer if it (a) serves those who are not already members of the church, (b) fails to hire based on religion, or (c) does not restrict its charitable and missionary purposes to the inculcation of religious values."

"Under such inexplicably narrow criteria--criteria bearing no reasonable relation to any legitimate (let alone compelling) government purpose--even the ministry of Jesus and the early Christian Church would not qualify as 'religious,' because they did not confine their ministry to their co-religionists or engage only in a preaching ministry," the bishops said. "In effect, the exemption is directly at odds with the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which Jesus teaches concern and assistance for those in need, regardless of faith differences."

Specifically, Catholic universities, Catholic hospitals and Catholic charitable organizations would not be exempted.

The regulation never contemplated exempting individual Catholics, or other people who object to buying sterilizations, contraceptives and abortifacients on grounds that it violates their religion and their conscience.

The regulation, as originally drawn and confirmed Friday by the administration, applies to all Catholic lay people—unless they work directly for a parish—and all Catholic business owners.

Cardinal-designate Dolan personally met with Obama in November to explain the church’s objection to the regulation, but Obama has now rejected Dolan’s pleas and those of Dolan’s brother bishops.

After the final regulation was announced on Friday, Dolan taped a video in which he said the Obama administration was violating the right to free exercise religion guaranteed by the 1st Amendment and called on Americans to make their elected leaders reverse the regulation.

“But I am afraid the administration is on the wrong side of the Constitution again,” said Dolan. “Now it has ordered almost every employer and insurer in the country to provide sterilizations and contraceptives, including some abortion-inducing drugs, in their health plans. And it is requiring almost all Americans, even those with ethical and religious objections, to pay for this coverage.

“The administration offered a very narrow religious exemption to some employers such as churches, but the government will still require most Americans to pay for this coverage even if it violates their consciences,” said Dolan. “That is a foul ball by any standard. Never before has the federal government forced individuals and organizations to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience. This shouldn’t happen in a land where free exercise of religion ranks first in the Bill of Rights. How about letting our elected leaders know that we want religious liberty and rights of conscience restored and the administration’s mandate rescinded? We can’t afford to strike out on this one.”

Feminist and pro-abortion groups were quick to applaud President Obama’s move to force Catholics to buy sterilizations, contraceptives and abortifacients.

“At last concern for women's health trumps pressure from the Catholic Bishops,” said Eleanor Smeal of the Feminist Majority Foundation. “Millions of women who may have been denied access to birth control with no co-pays or deductibles will now have full access. I am especially pleased that college students at religiously affiliated institutions will now have coverage for birth control without co-pays or deductibles under their school health plans beginning in August 2012.”

“Women's rights and pro-choice groups, including the Feminist Majority Foundation, Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the National Women's Law Center, the National Council of Jewish Women, the National Organization for Women (NOW), and NARAL Pro-Choice America, urged the Obama Administration not to consider the broader religious exemption,” said Smeal.

The National Organization for Women put out a statement thanking “the many activists and women's rights supporters around the country who flooded the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services with messages urging the administration” not to agree to the requests of Catholics to expand the exemption in the regulation.

NOW President Terry O’Neill described the religiously affiliated institutions denied an exemption from the regulation as groups incapable of having a “conscience” in need of protection.

“Last year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops intensified its lobbying campaign peddling a version of so-called ‘religious freedom’ that would allow organizations to withhold needed reproductive health care from women, as if those organizations were people with the ability to have a 'conscience,'" O'Neill said.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Catholic, defended Obama’s move.

“I strongly support this action by the Obama Administration to expand access to fundamental, basic health care and will continue to fight to protect the benefits of health care reform for the American people,” said Pelosi.

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