Concerns remain among local Catholics over HHS contraception mandate
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CHARLOTTE — Local Catholics' concern continues to deepen over a new federal health insurance mandate requiring all employers to provide free contraception and sterilization services in their insurance plans by 2013, despite a slight change announced Feb. 10 by the Obama Administration in reaction to a backlash from Catholics nationwide.
Under the change President Barack Obama announced Feb. 10 with Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius, religiously-affiliated universities and hospitals will not be forced to offer contraception coverage to their employees. Insurers themselves will be required, however, to offer complete coverage free of charge to any women who work for those institutions. There will be a one-year transition period for religious organizations after the policy formally takes effect on Aug. 1.
The administration's change does not help religious organizations that are self-insured, including the Diocese of Charlotte, Bishop Peter J. Jugis notes in a pastoral letter being issued Feb. 19. The letter is to be read out or distributed in all parishes during Mass this weekend.
As a self-insured employer, the Diocese of Charlotte essentially is its own health insurance company. So either way, the diocese could be forced under the HHS contraception mandate to cover contraception, abortion-causing drugs and sterilization services – starting either in 2013 or when the diocese's insurance plan year begins in July 2014.
The U.S. bishops, including Bishop Jugis, have mounted a nationwide opposition effort in response to the HHS contraception mandate, set by HHS in late 2011 as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 and reaffirmed by HHS Jan. 20.
"The Administration's sole concession was to give our institutions one year to comply. We cannot – we will not – comply with this unjust law," Bishop Jugis wrote in his first pastoral letter last month.
On Feb. 10, the U.S. bishops reiterated their opposition to the contraception mandate.
Within hours of Obama's announcement the bishops, led by Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, said the change does not address their objection to the mandate itself: that the government will be able to force religious employers to pay for contraception coverage over their religious objections.
In part, the U.S. bishops' statement said, "today's proposal continues to involve needless government intrusion in the internal governance of religious institutions, and to threaten government coercion of religious people and groups to violate their most deeply held convictions. In a nation dedicated to religious liberty as its first and founding principle, we should not be limited to negotiating within these parameters. The only complete solution to this religious liberty problem is for HHS to rescind the mandate of these objectionable services."
The controversy has sparked faithful of the diocese to write letters to the editor of the Catholic News Herald, supporting the bishops' protest as well as criticizing the overall situation that Catholics now find themselves in.
Estelle Wisneski encouraged the U.S. bishops to see this as a wake-up call on catechesis, which she believes has been sadly deficient for the past 40 years. Particularly on the issue of artificial contraceptive use, Wisneski said, some clergy have looked the other way and remained silent instead of correcting Catholics who contracept.
"I pray that in the future they will take more seriously their mandate to teach the Truth, in season and out of season, welcome or unwelcome, so that their sheep will be able to hear our Lord's voice and follow Him on the path to holiness of life and salvation," she wrote.
Gary Chambers of Waxhaw wrote in an e-mail that HHS's move should be no surprise to anyone.
"What did you folks think you were getting when you voted for this 'historic' president?" Chambers asked rhetorically. "I have to ask: did anyone take even a little time, a modicum of due diligence, and vet this guy? Did you have no inkling from his associations what he was all about? Or take a look at his voting record in the Illinois state senate, especially on abortion?"
Ed Dowd of Etowah made a similar point, writing that some Catholic leaders may have wrongly expected that the Obama Administration would be mindful of Catholic sensitivities in implementing the health care legislation because they publicly split from the U.S. bishops in 2010 and agreed to support it.
"So, now we see outrage from the same Catholics who led us down this path to begin with," Dowd wrote. "On the plus side, this should bring all people of faith together to be more aggressive with the regulatory clowns in Washington and ensure that we elect representatives who will protect and enhance our religious rights."
Dowd added, "I think it is refreshing that the leaders in getting this ruling overturned are the monks at Belmont Abbey working with the Becket Fund. They have shown a great deal of courage even though it is literally a David vs. Goliath situation, financially and legally. I don't think suing the federal government to get back your First Amendment rights is covered in The Rule of St. Benedict.
"God bless them – we pray for their success, for it will be our success, too."
BELMONT ABBEY COLLEGE LAWSUIT
As Dowd mentioned, Belmont Abbey College is suing the Obama Administration, charging that the HHS contraception mandate is an unconstitutional infringement of religious liberty. The Benedictine college in Belmont is being represented by the Becket Fund, a non-profit law firm based in Washington, D.C., that specializes in religious freedom cases.
Their lawsuit is one of three cases filed by the Becket Fund against the Obama Administration. The others are Colorado Christian University and EWTN.
As of Feb. 9, the federal government had delayed issuing a response in the federal district court where the lawsuit was filed last November, according to a representative with the Becket Fund. A response is now expected for sometime in mid-February, the representative said.
The Becket Fund also said Feb. 10 that the administration's policy change would have no impact on its litigation, because the change did not resolve the larger question of whether contraception coverage can be mandated over an employer's religious objections.
"This is nothing more than an accounting shell game," said Hannah Smith, senior legal counsel for the Becket Fund in Washington, D.C. "This really doesn't change anything."
In a press release issued Feb. 10, Smith was quoted as saying, "This is a false 'compromise' designed to protect the president's re-election chances, not to protect the right of conscience. Hundreds, if not thousands, of religious institutions are still left out in the cold and will be forced to violate their religious convictions."
Meanwhile, Catholic business owners across the U.S. are waiting anxiously for the outcome of a bill introduced in Congress Jan. 31 by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to protect the rights of both individuals and organizations who object to the mandate for religious reasons. The bill would protect Catholics who run companies that are not religiously-affiliated.
On Feb. 6, Rubio and 150-plus other Republican and Democrat members of Congress also demanded that the Obama Administration rescind the mandate, condemning it as an "unprecedented overreach by the federal government." Read more.
One longtime Charlotte-area Catholic business owner who remains concerned is Robert Gallagher, publisher of Saint Benedict Press.
Gallagher wrote in an e-mail to the Catholic News Herald, "The Obama mandate creates a crisis of conscience for thousands of our nation's employers, especially Catholics and other men and women of faith. It is a radical infringement upon the free exercise of religion, a persecution of religious belief in the marketplace, and an attempt by a thoroughly secular Administration to remove the expression of one's religious tenets from the public square."
— Patricia L. Guilfoyle, editor
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FROM THE PASTORS
Read and listen to homilies posted regularly by pastors at parishes within the Diocese of Charlotte:
- Fr. Frank Cancro at Queen of the Apostles
- Fr. Patrick Earl at St. Peter in Charlotte
- Fr. John Eckert at St. John the Baptist in Tryon
- Fr. Timothy Reid at St. Ann in Charlotte
- Fr. Benjamin Roberts at Our Lady of Lourdes in Monroe
- Fr. Patrick Winslow at St. Thomas Aquinas in Charlotte
- Watch full Masses live and on demand, listen to homilies and reflections from Sacred Heart Church in Salisbury
- Listen to homilies from St. William Catholic Church in Murphy