Charlotte diocese among Catholic employers concerned about implications of narrower religious exemption
- Charlotte diocese among Catholic employers concerned about implications of narrower religious exemption
- U.S. Catholics fight contraception mandate as deadline looms
- U.S. bishops: HHS contraception mandate 'unprecedented,' must be rescinded
- Bishops aim to mobilize Catholics to guard consciences on contraception
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CHARLOTTE — A new federal regulation that would require employer insurance plans to provide contraceptives is being greeted with varying levels of dismay in Catholic dioceses across the country, including the Diocese of Charlotte. And earlier this week as the Sept. 30 deadline for public comment nears, North Carolina's two bishops issued an alert to Catholics, urging opposition to the new regulation.
The new regulation is part of implementing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, which sets up new preventative health care coverage specifically for women at no cost. That coverage includes services such as mammograms, prenatal care and cervical cancer screenings, but it also mandates free contraception, sterilizations and drugs considered by the Church to be abortifacients – all of which are contrary to Catholic teaching. (See the full description of women's "preventative" care being covered, and learn more about the women's guidelines in general.)
For a religious employer that does not want to offer such services, the regulation sets out a narrow exemption: An exempt religious employer is one that "(1) has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose; (2) primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets; (3) primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets; and (4) is a nonprofit organization" under specific sections of the Internal Revenue Code. The exact language of the exemption was announced Aug. 1 by the federal Department of Health and Human Services.
Catholic leaders across the country are decrying this exemption as too narrowly written – particularly parts 2 and 3 – and violates the Church's religious liberty. The Church's ministries do and should go beyond serving and employing Catholics, they say.
For example, the Charlotte diocese's social services ministries serve thousands of people each year – and they're not all Catholics. From food pantries to adoption services, refugee resettlement and more, the diocese does not scrutinize clients' religious tenets before they help them. The diocese also hires people of all religious faiths, and diocesan schools enroll non-Catholic students.
Terri Wilhelm, diocesan human resources director, said the diocese may be "all right for now," but there is a very real risk that the diocese could soon be forced to choose from three bad options: offer contraception coverage, limit its ministries to serving Catholics only, or stop offering insurance to its employees altogether.
But if they were to get backed into a corner by the HHS regulation, only the third option would really be on the table, Charlotte diocese officials said. Many other Catholic employers are saying the same thing (Read the Sept. 4 edition of Our Sunday Visitor).
The Charlotte diocese's insurance plan through United Health Care does not include services that run contrary to Church teaching, and the diocese's approximately 1,100 eligible full-time employees and clergy are informed of this provision every year during open enrollment, Wilhelm said.
The diocese could avoid the new federal regulation on contraception coverage as long as it makes no significant changes to its insurance plan, Wilhelm said, because the health reform law allows current plans to be "grandfathered in."
"Our intention is to remain grandfathered," Wilhelm said, but the diocese reviews its health insurance coverage plan annually and sometimes makes changes -- as do most employers -- so there's a risk that the diocese could become ensnared in the new federal mandate within a year or two.
North Carolina and 27 other states have some kind of mandated coverage for contraceptives, but none is as sweeping as the HHS regulation, said Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities. Nineteen of those states – including North Carolina – have some kind of religious exemption, most of which simply state an employer may be exempt "for religious reasons."
If allowed to stand, the HHS regulation could go into effect Aug. 1, 2012. A 60-day comment period on the regulation ends Sept. 30.
Make your voice heard
Meanwhile, Church leaders, Catholic hospitals, Catholic universities, and Catholic ministry providers across the country remain worried.
On Aug. 31, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called on HHS to rescind its mandate forcing employers to cover contraception, sterilization and abortifacients.
Anthony Picarello, USCCB general counsel, and Michael Moses, associate general counsel, called the mandate "unprecedented in federal law and more radical than any state contraceptive mandate." They criticized the narrow "religious employer" exemption, explaining that it provides "no protection at all for individuals or insurers with a moral or religious objection to contraceptives or sterilization...."
The U.S. bishops continued to voice strong opposition to the HHS regulation this week, calling it a violation of the First Amendment's protection of religious liberty. Read the full text of the USCCB's comments.
"The Health and Human Services' interpretation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is legally flawed," Bishop Peter J. Jugis said. "Health and Human Services is legally forbidden from mandating coverage of any drug that can cause an abortion, and from forcing individuals or institutions to provide coverage for contraception, sterilization, or related education and counseling over their religious and moral objections."
The U.S. bishops are urging HHS to rewrite the religious exemption, to protect their choice to exclude coverage that violates the teachings of the Church. In composing a religious exemption, the USCCB urged HHS to look to the "church plan" exemption found in section 414(e) of the federal tax code, which defines a "church plan" to include any pension or welfare plan to covers employees or a church or tax-exempt organization associated with a church."
In a separate letter that was to be submitted to HHS during the comments period, a group of prominent Catholics suggested defining a religious organization as a "nonprofit religious, educational or charitable organization" that "engages its religious, charitable or educational activities for bona fide religious purposes or reasons" and "holds itself out to the public as a religious organization."
Bishop Peter Jugis of Charlotte and Bishop Michael Burbidge of Raleigh issued an alert Sept. 21 on the matter through Catholic Voice North Carolina, the non-partisan public policy Web site, www.CatholicVoiceNC.org. The alert was sent to 4,000 participants.
In the Diocese of Charlotte, bulletin inserts explaining the problem were also scheduled to be inserted into parish bulletins over the weekend of Sept. 24-25. The bulletin inserts were also to be distributed at the 2011 Eucharistic Congress in Charlotte.
— Patricia L. Guilfoyle, editor; David Hains, diocesan director of communication; Liz O'Connor and Nancy Frazier O'Brien, Catholic News Service.
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