President needs to offer relief from HHS mandate

    Catholic bishops across the United States have endorsed access to health care as a basic human right. But with something as critical and far-reaching as health care, Catholic individuals and institutions and people of faith cannot be asked to compromise their deeply held religious beliefs to comply with portions of a law that violate their conscience.
    It was against this backdrop that Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote President Obama on Dec. 31, asking the president to exempt religious institutions from fines related to health care requirements while legal challenges to the health care mandate are deliberated by the courts.
    The mandate, as has been well reported, requires Catholic institutions and Catholic business owners to provide health insurance coverage to their employees that includes surgical sterilization, abortion-inducing drugs and contraceptives. The penalties for not complying with that mandate are onerous fines. The end result might be forcing Catholic hospitals and health care agencies to abandon their centuries-old ministry of saving lives.
    Thus far, the administration appears not to be listening to our concerns about religious liberty. It has been very flexible in implementing certain aspects of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). For example, owners of small businesses and individuals whose current insurance plans will be canceled have been temporarily exempted from penalties for noncompliance with the ACA.
    That same flexibility, however, has not been extended to those who desire to exercise what has rightly been called our “first freedom” under the Constitution.
    According to Archbishop Kurtz, a whole category of Americans “has been left out in the cold: those who, due to moral and religious conviction, cannot in good conscience comply with the (Health and Human Services) regulation requiring coverage of sterilization and contraceptives. This mandate includes drugs and devices that can interfere with the survival of a human being in the earliest stage of development, burdening religious convictions on abortion as well as contraception.”
    At least 90 lawsuits representing nearly 300 plaintiffs have been filed to challenge the mandate, and the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear two of the cases involving for-profit employers, probably in March. Meanwhile, several lower federal courts have granted at least temporary relief to institutions and businesses who have challenged the mandate. Other courts still are considering cases. Some courts have ruled the employers must comply.
    We received some good news on Dec. 31 when Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued an injunction temporarily protecting the Little Sisters of the Poor in Denver from the mandate. Other challenges are working their way to the high court.
    The request by Archbishop Kurtz for a religious exemption comes down to basic fairness. Under some of the exemptions to the ACA already allowed by the administration, no employers will be required to offer a health plan at all, and employers who cancel coverage in 2014 face no penalty for doing so.
    But, Archbishop Kurtz said, “an employer who chooses, out of charity and good will, to provide and fully subsidize an excellent health plan for employees – but excludes sterilization or any contraceptive drug or device – faces crippling fines of up to $100 a day or $36,500 a year per employee. In effect, the government seems to be telling employees that they are better off with no employer health plan at all than with a plan that does not cover contraceptives. This is hard to reconcile with an act whose purpose is to bring us closer to universal coverage.”
    This challenge to religious freedom will be decided ultimately by the Supreme Court, but the current situation leaves many religious employers in an untenable position. Temporary relief from the mandate for religious employers is justified. We pray that the courts will protect religious freedom, fundamental to our liberty and guaranteed by our nation’s founders.
    Questions for Archbishop Gregory Aymond can be sent to clarionherald@clarionherald.org.

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