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Catholic Bishop joins contraception mandate debate

Says employers with religious objections should get to opt out

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Pointing to growing unease that President Obama's proposed contraception coverage rule doesn't protect religious freedom sufficiently, a Catholic bishop told Congress on Thursday the church will throw its weight behind House legislation releasing any employer from the mandate on religious or moral grounds.

Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., said the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops won't retreat from their battle against the newest version of the rule, which expanded the exemption to not just churches, but Catholic charities, hospitals and schools as well.

"It doesn't take care of the principle — the intrusion into the life of the church," Bishop Lori said, adding any employer with a religious objection to paying for contraception should be released from the rule. "We think the mandate should be rescinded and that we should return to the status quo."

Bishop Lori joined other Jewish, Protestant and evangelical leaders to testify before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in a hearing on religious liberty under the Obama administration — a session that turned into a heated debate over the president's mandate that insurers provide free contraception to workers.

The hearing came after Republicans highlighted legislation earlier in the week that would dramatically expand the ability of employers to opt out. Bishop Lori said the Catholic bishops will push for the House version of the bill, which excuses employers from covering any medical service that violates their moral or religious beliefs.

"We think that's a very good piece of legislation," Bishop Lori said of the bill, which is sponsored by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, Nebraska Republican, and has 191 co-sponsors in the House. It mirrors legislation introduced by Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, in the Senate.

As Republicans accused the administration of treading on conscience rights, Democrats complained that the witnesses were one-sided and said the hearing was just designed to embarrass the president and assault women's health.

Ranking member Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat, slammed Rep. Darrell E. Issa for calling a 10-member witness panel that included just two women and excluding members of Catholics United and other groups that have backed the president's revised proposal.

"He's stacked the hearing with witnesses who agree with his position," Mr. Cummings said, accusing Mr. Issa of doing "a massive injustice by trying to pretend the views of millions of women across this country are meaningless or worthless to the debate."

But Bishop Lori pointed to the Catholic Health Association and Catholic Charities USA, two leading Catholic groups who seemed to initially support the latest rule but later issued doubt-filled statements, saying they were still trying to get answers about how it would apply.

"It is instructive that as time passed on and there has been further opportunity for analysis, there are questions the Catholic Health Association itself is rightly asking," he said. "As time goes on, [Catholic Charities USA] has also recognized there are very serious problems at the level of principle and at the level of practicality."

The bishops say the compromise rule leaves out religious insurers and self-insuring employers — a category that includes 60 percent of covered American workers.

While Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius told reporters Wednesday that self-insuring companies would also be allowed to opt out, Bishop Lori said the administration hasn't notified the bishops.

But rather than using the hearing to focus on details of the mandate, Republicans tried to frame the struggle as a matter of religious freedom. Mr. Issa held up pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy inscribed with quotes they made about protecting freedom of conscience.

"Do you believe we have a president in this administration who is working to subvert the First Amendment's guarantee of religious liberty?" he asked the witnesses.

But Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, Virginia Democrat, chided Mr. Issa for referencing public figures regarded as Democratic heroes and called the hearing "a sham."

"This is a panel designed ... to embarrass the president of the United States and his administration, by overstating an issue which is sacred to all Americans: religious freedom," Mr. Connolly said. "But of course, in order to do it, we have to, in an almost Stalinist-like fashion, have signs of Democratic icons to rub Democratic faces in."

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