Pelosi Won't Defend First Amendment Rights of Historic San Francisco Catholic Hospital

Matt Cover | November 30, 2012 | 5:18pm EST
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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) (AP)

( -- House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who is Catholic, indicated on Friday that she supports forcing St. Mary’s Medical Center, the oldest continuously operating hospital in her San Francisco-based congressional district, to provide health plans to its workers that cover sterilizations, contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs free of charge even though the Catholic faith says this Catholic hospital may not do so because these things are intrinsically immoral.

"We are committed to furthering the healing ministry of Jesus," says the hospital's mission statement.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius--who, like Pelosi, is Catholic--issued the sterilization-contraception-abortifacient mandate as a regulation under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, AKA Obamacare.

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The Catholic bishops of the United States have repeatedly argued, including in numerous lawsuits, that the regulation violates the First-Amendment-guaranteed right to the free exercise of religion by Catholics and Catholic institutions.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama touted the regulation in many stump speeches during the recent campaign, saying that health plans would now be required to provide women with cost-free contraception.

The Catholic bishops of the United States unanimously endorsed a statement in June declaring the regulation an "unjust and illegal mandate." Many of the bishops had letters read to parishioners at Sunday Masses saying of the regulation: "We cannot--we will not--comply with this unjust law."

Bill Cox, head of the health care alliance that oversees St. Mary's, said the mandate is an "egregious encroachment by the federal government on the constitutionally protected authority of the church."

At the Capitol on Friday, asked Pelosi: “Should St. Mary’s hospital, which is a Catholic institution in San Francisco, should it be required by the administration to provide its workers with a health plan that covers sterilization and contraception and abortifacients and [other] things that it disagrees with?”

Pelosi said, “I support the action taken by the president--the compromise, I think, is a reasonable one.”

Bill Cox, president and CEO of the Alliance for Catholic Health Care, which operates 54 hospitals in California, including St. Mary's, told, "There was no 'compromise.'"

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. (AP)

"Once the HHS mandate's 'safe harbor' provision expires on August 1, 2013, the federal government will, for the first time in our nation's history, compel Catholic hospitals, universities and charities to cover in their employee health plans drugs and procedures that violate their religious and moral convictions, or pay substantial financial penalties," said Cox.

“This represents an egregious encroachment by the federal government on the constitutionally protected authority of the church," said Cox. "The definition of religious employer must be eliminated by administrative, or legislative or judicial action. Hopefully, before August 2013.”

The HHS mandate went into effect on Aug. 1, 2012. Religiously affiliated non-profit employers were given an extension, until August 2013, to figure out how to comply with the mandate. Catholic laypersons who own businesses or who, as individuals, must comply with the mandate were given no extension.

The regulation requires nearly all health-care plans to provide, without co-pay, sterilizations, and all FDA-approved contraceptives, which includes abortion-inducing drugs.The mandate applies not just to employers but also nearly all individuals regardless of their religious faith.

During the vice presidential debate in October, Vice President Joe Biden, a Catholic, said that "no religious institution--Catholic or otherwise, including Catholic social services, Georgetown hospital, Mercy hospital, any hospital -- none has to either refer for contraception. None has to pay for contraception. None has to be a vehicle to get contraception in an insurance policy they provide. That is a fact. That is a fact."

Biden was wrong. After the debate, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement, saying Biden's comment was "not a fact."  It continued, “The HHS mandate contains a narrow, four-part exemption for certain ‘religious employers.’ That exemption was made final in February and does not extend to ‘Catholic social services, Georgetown hospital, Mercy hospital, any hospital,’ or any other religious charity that offers its services to all, regardless of the faith of those served."

St. Mary's Medical Center was founded by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy in 1854.

“[H]ad HHS's definition of religious employer been in effect in 1854, the ministry of the Sisters of Mercy in San Francisco would not have been considered by the federal government to be a religious ministry,” Cox testified before Congress last fall.

In 2011, St. Mary’s parent company, Dignity Health, provided $1.4 billion in charity health care in the state of California, including Pelosi’s home city of San Francisco, where Catholic health care workers have been active since at least 1854.

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