A new federal government mandate which will force private health insurers to cover contraception, including abortifacients, has been attacked by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) over its failure to include a conscience clause.
In a statement, the legal representatives for the bishops say that the mandate provides virtually no protection for religious freedom. They called for the withdrawal of the mandate, which is set to go into effect in August 2012.
Commenting on the mandate, lawyers for the Bishops, Anthony Picarello and Michael Moses described the requirement to provide contraception as “nationwide government coercion of religious people and groups” which represented “an unprecedented attack on religious liberty”.
In their comments on the mandate, which they presented to the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) yesterday, the lawyers noted that the mandate's "religious employer" exception provides "no protection at all for individuals or insurers with a moral or religious objection to contraceptives or sterilization," instead covering only "a very small subset of religious employers".
Under the terms of the mandate, they noted, a church is not a religious employer if it (a) serves those who are not already members of the church, (b) fails to hire based on religion, or (c) does not restrict its charitable and missionary purposes to the inculcation of religious values.
They said: “Under such inexplicably narrow criteria—criteria bearing no reasonable relation to any legitimate (let alone compelling) government purpose—even the ministry of Jesus and the early Christian Church would not qualify as ‘religious,’ because they did not confine their ministry to their co-religionists or engage only in a preaching ministry.
“In effect, the exemption is directly at odds with the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which Jesus teaches concern and assistance for those in need, regardless of faith differences.”
“The exemption "is narrower than any conscience clause ever enacted in federal law, and narrower than the vast majority of religious exemptions from state contraceptive mandates," they said.
By failing to protect insurers, individuals, most employers, or any other stakeholders with a religious objection to such items and procedures, the HHS exemption, like the mandate itself, violates the U.S. Constitution and various federal statutes, they added.
Up to now, no US federal law had ever prevented private insurers from accommodating purchasers and plan sponsors with moral or religious objections to certain services, they said in the statement.
"Plans were free under federal law to accommodate those objections by allowing purchasers to choose not to buy coverage for gender change surgery, contraceptives, in vitro fertilization, or other procedures that the purchaser or sponsor found religiously or morally problematic.
“Likewise, federal law did not forbid any insurer, such as a religiously-affiliated insurer, to exclude from its plans any services to which the insurer itself had a moral or religious objection. Indeed, the freedom to exclude morally objectionable services has sometimes been stated affirmatively in federal law."
Under the mandate this will end and religious employers that do not meet the HHS definition will also be subject to the mandate, they said.
Earlier this month, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities attacked the mandate, saying that the “pro-life majority of Americans--Catholics and others--would be outraged to learn” that their insurance policies were subsidising abortofacient drugs.
He added: “It’s now more vital than ever that Congress pass the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act to close the gaps in conscience protection in the new health care reform act, so employers and employees alike will have the freedom to choose health plans in accordance with their deeply held moral and religious beliefs.”