US President Barack Obama has offered what he says is a compromise on a rule which would have forced religious institutions to pay for insurance they consider to be immoral. Catholic leaders in particular had been angered by a new rule requiring Church-linked institutions to offer health insurance including birth control. The debate has pushed social issues to the fore during an election season so far dominated by the US economy. The latest proposal would still insist that employees of religious institutions would be provided with the contentious cover, but would require insurance companies to provide it free of charge. The insurers will agree, the White House said, because it is more expensive for them to pay for pregnancies than to pay for contraceptives.
A narrow conscience provision in the original rule meant that churches and other houses of worship were given a waiver, but institutions including Catholic universities and hospitals are not exempt. The new proposal does not expand the scope of the conscience provision. Catholic leaders say complying with it would force them to violate their consciences.
US Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius defended the original policy in an editorial for USA Today. Catholic bishops called for the rule to be dropped, including Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, who wrote in an editorial for the Wall Street Journal that the mandate was “an unprecedented incursion into freedom of conscience”.
Administration officials said the White House had never expected to get the bishops’ support, given their absolute opposition to contraception, and was surprised when the initial statement of the bishops conference on Friday was noncommittal and went so far as to call the president’s modification a step in the right direction. But a second statement from the bishop’s conference late on Friday said that the plan raised “a grave moral concern.” Richard Doerflinger, associate director of pro-life activities at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the reason for the change in tone was that they had not seen the rule itself when the initial response was issued.
The bishops said the plan offered insufficient protection for their institutions. “In the case where the employee and insurer agree to add the objectionable coverage, that coverage is still provided as a part of the objecting employer’s plan, financed in the same way as the rest of the coverage offered by the objecting employer. This, too, raises serious moral concerns.”
“There are two other branches of government that may treat our concerns more seriously,” Mr Doerflinger said. Already three lawsuits have been filed against the birth control mandate, two by religious colleges and one by Catholic television network EWTN.
Earlier last week, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, John Boehner, said legislation was needed to prevent the rule from taking effect. He said if the White House did not scrap the policy Congress would be forced to act. “This attack by the federal government on religious freedom must not stand and will not stand,” he said. The Speaker said the House Energy and Commerce Committee was working on legislation related to the rule.
The Respect for Rights of Conscience Act would exempt both insurance providers and purchasers — and not just those who are religiously affiliated — from any mandate to cover items of services that is contrary to either’s “religious beliefs or moral convictions.” The Senate version of the bill was introduced by Senators Roy Blunt of Missouri, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, all Republicans. It has 36 Republican sponsors and co-sponsors, and one Democratic one — Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska.
Rep. Dan Lipinski, a Democrat from Illinois, said he was “enormously disappointed” by Friday’s announcement. “All the facts indicate that the ‘new’ mandate is the same as the ‘old’ mandate,” he said in a statement. “New words, same policy.”
Rep Lipinski called for a rule that protects religious liberty “by allowing employers to provide health insurance coverage that does not include abortion drugs and other services that violate their conscience and religious doctrine.” He said the “so-called compromise that is no compromise at all and provides no options for those with profound religious and moral objections to providing these services.” The new rule, he insisted, “remains coercive and still violates the long-standing tradition of protection for conscience rights in federal law.”
There was further condemnation of the proposal in a letter signed by a group of prominent Catholic intellectuals, including former US Ambassador to the Holy See, Mary Ann Glendon, Princeton’s Professor Robert George, Notre Dame’s Professor Carter Snead, and Catholic University of America President John Garvey. They charged that the “so-called ‘accommodation’ changes nothing of moral substance and fails to remove the assault on religious liberty and the rights of conscience which gave rise to the controversy.”
“The simple fact,” they continued, “is that the Obama administration is compelling religious people and institutions who are employers to purchase a health insurance contract that provides abortion-inducing drugs, contraception, and sterilization.” They say this is a grave and unacceptable violation of religious freedom. “It is an insult to the intelligence of Catholics, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other people of faith and conscience to imagine that they will accept as assault on their religious liberty if only it is covered up by a cheap accounting trick.”
The president's compromise was welcomed by abortion groups Naral Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood, which hailed the Obama administration for reaffirming “its commitment to ensuring all women will have access to birth control coverage”.
BBC. February 10. The New York Times. February 11. The White House. February 12. Congressman Daniel Lipinski. February 10. The Becket Fund. February 11.
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