- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 7, 2013

America’s Catholic bishops on Thursday rejected President Obama’s latest contraception mandate upon religiously affiliated hospitals, schools and charities, saying the rules still don’t ensure that people won’t be forced to pay for contraceptives to which they morally object.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he appreciated the Health and Human Services Department’s latest effort to try to work out a compromise that lets women obtain free birth control without religiously affiliated organizations having to pay for it. But Cardinal Dolan said it still doesn’t treat religiously affiliated charities and other groups the same as churches and temples themselves.

“HHS offers what it calls an ‘accommodation’ rather than accepting the fact that these ministries are integral to our church and worthy of the same exemption as our Catholic churches,” he said.

The administration’s latest offer was an attempt to end a public and politically draining dispute for Mr. Obama with the nation’s Catholic hierarchy, one that has spilled over into the courts. But finding a workable middle ground has been difficult for both sides.

Under Mr. Obama’s health care law, most employers are required to provide health insurance that provide women with free contraceptive coverage, including sterilization and access to morning-after pills that some ethicists say amounts to abortion.

Houses of worship are exempt, but religiously affiliated employers, such as Catholic universities or hospitals, are not.

Last week, the Obama administration announced a long-awaited proposal that would have insurers or third-party administrators provide contraception coverage through separate policies without the religious nonprofits’ involvement.

Health care officials said insurance providers would be reimbursed for the coverage through rebates on the user fees tied to participation in health care exchanges in the states, which will take effect next year under Mr. Obama’s health care law. Plus, officials said, a reduction in pregnancies often makes the coverage cost-neutral. Progressive Catholic groups and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America praised the plan.

“Are we really at a point where everything the Obama administration touches makes the bishops take their marbles and go home?” said James Salt, executive director of Catholics United, accusing the bishops of “scoring political points for the far right.”

Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards said it is “becoming clear that some people just will not rest until they have found a way to deny women access to birth control coverage.”

But Cardinal Dolan said it is “still unclear how directly these separate policies would be funded by objecting ministries, and what precise role those ministries would have in arranging for these separate policies. Thus, there remains the possibility that ministries may yet be forced to fund and facilitate such morally illicit activities.”

He also said the rules don’t help devout workers at religiously affiliated organizations who cannot opt out of plans that offer contraceptive care.

The rules also don’t apply to for-profit companies with owners whose religious or moral beliefs oppose the use of artificial contraceptives.

More than a dozen corporations have sued the Obama administration over the contraception mandate, saying it violates their right to religious freedom.

The owners of Hobby Lobby stores, the best-known company among the corporate plaintiffs, announced last month that they had figured out a way to delay the start of their insurance year, putting off massive penalties that were to kick in at the start of the year for refusing to provide free birth control.

Federal circuit courts have come down on both sides of the issue in preliminary rulings on whether to delay the mandate, a sign that the issue could be heading for the Supreme Court.