Church opposes new health-insurance rule
Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix has become one of the first Roman Catholic bishops in the nation to openly defy the Obama administration over new rules forcing employers to include access to contraceptives and sterilization procedures in health-insurance coverage.
Although the Catholic Church itself is exempt from the proposed regulations, Olmsted believes the federal government's decision is an attack on religious liberty. He is encouraging church members to actively oppose it.
Rob DeFrancesco, spokesman for the Phoenix Diocese, said that even though the diocese, its parishes and its schools will likely all be exempt from the rule, the bishop is concerned about "many other organizations," such as charities and hospitals, that are Catholic in belief but may not fall under the diocese's administrative umbrella.
Olmsted, who was not available for comment, was among a handful of bishops to release letters late this week expressing opposition to the mandate. The Phoenix bishop went further than some others by saying Catholics should not comply with the law.
"This is an alarming and serious matter that negatively impacts the church in the United States directly and that strikes at the fundamental right to religious liberty," Olmsted wrote in the letter, which is expected to be read this weekend at Catholic Masses.
Several others made their concerns clear, including the bishop of Pittsburgh, David Zubik, who in a column on the diocese website said the message from the administration to churches was: "To hell with you."
The rule is scheduled to take effect in 18 months.
The messages from bishops signaled a new front in the battle over government imposition of rules that churches believe affect religious freedom.
Several church leaders have been engaged in the dispute since the rules first were announced last August, but now, numerous bishops are preparing letters to be read at Masses on Sunday encouraging church members to become more active in opposing the rules.
The Roman Catholic Church is the only significant denomination opposed to contraception.
At issue is a proposal by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that would require health-insurance plans to cover certain women's health services, including contraception, without charging a co-pay or a deductible.
Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services, said last week that the move will provide greater access to the full range of preventive services for women. She said the administration believes it was a compromise between religious values and women's health.
The U.S. bishops claim the decision impinges on religious freedom protected by the First Amendment.
The church has taught that birth control is "intrinsically wrong" since 1968, around the time the pill came into widespread use.
According to the government, the mandate will include exceptions for certain religious employers, such as churches and church-governing groups.
But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops argues that the mandate violates conscience protections for other Catholic organizations and individuals who are covered under the First Amendment. In the past, exemptions were available for almost any organization that claimed following a government mandate would violate its religious beliefs.
It is not a new fight. In the past year, several Catholic charitable organizations in Illinois and Massachusetts have dropped foster care and adoption services because they would be required to consider gay couples as potential parents.
On the other side of the coin, Catholic Healthcare West changed its name to Dignity Healthcare and ended its affiliation with the Catholic Church, mainly because church regulations impeded the company's growth -- especially when seeking mergers with non-Catholic hospital groups that did not want to abide by Catholic regulations.
Bishop: Law is 'unjust'
According to Catholic News Service, bishops in nine of the nation's 195 dioceses are preparing letters to be read at Masses on Sunday encouraging churchgoers to lobby against the measure. Several others, including Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York and retired Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, have written or spoken against the mandate.
Of the group that has gone public so far, Olmsted appears to be the only one who has said specifically that Catholics should defy the law, according to the Catholic news agency.
"Unless the rule is overturned," Olmsted wrote, "we Catholics will be compelled either to violate our consciences or to drop health coverage for our employees."
Olmsted added, "We cannot -- we will not -- comply with this unjust law."
Penalties for not following the rule, if it is adopted, are unclear. Government contracts, if any, could be jeopardized, and employees who are not covered in circumstances where coverage is required could seek legal remedies.
The rule would not appear to affect any employees insured through the diocese self-insurance plan, including the downtown office, parishes and schools. Less clear is how the rule might affect affiliated organizations, such as the Foundation for Senior Living, Catholic Social Services or even the Catholic Cemeteries group, which also receive the diocese's insurance coverage.
No representatives of the foundation or Catholic Social Services were available to answer questions.
Even more murky is the possible effect on Catholic hospitals, universities and other organizations that are less closely tied to a church or diocese, among them St. Vincent de Paul, a large organization that serves the poor and homeless. But the rules clearly would apply to private employers who have chosen for religious reasons not to offer contraceptive services in health-insurance plans.
Contraception has been offered in the insurance coverage at St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix since 1997, a company representative said. That was more than a decade before Olmsted ousted the hospital from the Catholic family after a dispute about a medical procedure that Olmsted considered an abortion.
Specifically, the rule would exempt religious groups that have religious education as their purpose, that "primarily employ" people who share the groups' religious tenets, that primarily serve those whose share the religious tenets, and that are non-profit organizations.
The Catholic position, voiced by bishops, health-care officials and educators, is that the exception to the new federal rules is too narrow to be meaningful or helpful. Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, called it a "housekeeper exception."
According to the U.S. bishops' website, "The exemption fails to cover the vast majority of faith-based organizations, including Catholic hospitals, universities and service organizations that help millions every year. Ironically, not even Jesus and his Disciples would have qualified."
Jesus and his Disciples, the bishops said, did not "primarily serve" members of their own religion.
Birth control widely used
Surveys have indicated, from the debut of the birth-control pill nationally in 1965, that a vast majority of Catholic women used, or have used, some form of birth control. A survey by the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-health organization, last April indicated that 98 percent of Catholic women have used some kind of birth control sometime during their lives.
Responding to that statistic, diocese spokesman DeFrancesco said, "Regardless of where people are, this is the church teaching."
The Catholic Church has taken a consistent stand against the use of outside means of birth control, arguing that sexual activity must remain open to the possibility of children.
According to the Rev. Jan Olav Flaaten, a Lutheran who is director of the Arizona Ecumenical Council, most religious groups are not concerned that the government routinely overreaches in church-state relations. He said he could think of no other group that had issues with contraception.