Cheryl Roggensack, a member of Holy Family Catholic Church in Brentwood, Tenn., says the Pledge of Allegiance during the"Stand Up for Religious Freedom" rally on the steps of the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville March 23. Behind her are members of th e Dominican Sister of St. Cecelia based in Nashville. About 500 people attended the event, which was one of 143 similar rallies held across the nation in response to the federal contraceptive mandate. (CNS photo/Rick Musacchio, Tennessee Register)

PITTSBURGH (CNS) — The Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, one of the largest regional ecumenical agencies in the United States, urged the Obama administration to broaden the religious exemption in the federal government’s mandate requiring that most health plans cover the cost of contraception, sterilization and some drugs that can induce abortion.

As it stands now, religious employers who are morally opposed to such coverage maybe be forced to shut down various ministries, including outreach to the poor, which would result in an “immense injustice” to those in need, the organization said in a statement.

It said the mandate violates the Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom and also called “health care for all” a “moral imperative.”

The statement, released April 13 at a news conference at the organization’s headquarters in Pittsburgh, was signed by the leaders of several church bodies, including the Catholic Church.

“Our deep concern over this mandate does not arise from the varying convictions we have on the moral content of this mandate, but from our common commitment to the right of religious freedom that all people of faith expect to enjoy in this country,” the statement said.

“The Constitution of the United States guarantees every religious institution and its affiliated bodies the inalienable right to define its own identity and ministries and to practice its own beliefs, not just its freedom of worship,” it added.

The signatories included Bishops David A. Zubik and Lawrence E. Brandt, who head, respectively the Latin-rite dioceses of Pittsburgh and Greensburg and Father Eugene Yackanich, interim administrator of the Byzantine Archeparchy of Pittsburgh. (Archbishop William C. Skurla was to be enthroned as head of the archeparchy April 18.)

“Many religious institutions are now placed in the untenable position of (a) violating their consciences, (b) ceasing health insurance and paying ruinous fines, or (c) withdrawing entirely from providing the social services to the wider community that have long been a social justice hallmark of their ministry,” the statement said.

“Creating gaping holes in the public welfare safety net is in and of itself an immense injustice.”

The statement concluded by calling on the Obama administration to alter the contraceptive mandate by broadening “within it so that both the constitutional right to the free exercise of religion for all and the moral imperative of health care, likewise for all, in this country may not be impaired.”

Other signatories included Archbishop Robert Duncan of the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh and chair of the Christian Associates, and representatives of the Presbyterian Church, the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, the Disciples of Christ, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the United Church of Christ, the Baptist Church and the Orthodox Church in America.

Founded in 1970, the Christian Associates organization includes 26 church bodies (Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox and Protestant) representing 2,000 local congregations and 1 million Christians in southwestern Pennsylvania.