Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore updates U.S. bishops on their efforts to defend religious liberty. He addressed the bishops at their annual fall meeting in Baltimore Nov. 12, 2012. (CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)
Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore updates U.S. bishops on their efforts to defend religious liberty. He addressed the bishops at their annual fall meeting in Baltimore Nov. 12, 2012. (CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, said he has “deep gratitude” and “solidarity and appreciation” for those who have challenged the contraceptive mandate of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that forces employers to pay for contraceptive services.

Catholic dioceses, as well as Catholic and other religious nonprofit organizations and businesses, have filed lawsuits challenging the HHS mandate that is part of the Affordable Care Act.

In a recent decision on one of the lawsuits, a federal judge April 3 granted a Catholic-owned Minnesota company a reprieve from complying with the mandate until a permanent decision is reached on its implementation under the health care law.

Archbishop Lori said in an April 8 statement that the goal of these litigants is “nothing less than securing the freedom of the church to continue to obey the Lord’s command — and, in turn, to serve the common good — by providing charitable ministries in health care, education, and service to the poor, all without compromising Catholic beliefs.”

The mandate requires employers to cover contraceptives, abortion drugs and sterilization procedures in their health plans. The lawsuits challenging it have been filed on grounds that the exemption for those who object to it for moral or religious reasons should be expanded.

He described new proposed rules HHS released Feb. 1 governing the contraceptive mandate and the definition of a religious employer as “a small, incremental step” that is welcomed but fails to address “most of the serious problems with the definition and mandate.”

The new proposal would widen the exemption for religious organizations by removing three conditions that defined religious employers — as groups whose purpose is the inculcation of religious values, who primarily employ persons of the same faith and who serve those of the same faith. The fourth criterion remains: what is a nonprofit organization under specific sections of the Internal Revenue Code.

No exemption will be given to individual employees or for-profit secular employers morally opposed to such coverage.

The day Archbishop Lori’s statement was released was the last day of the 60-day public comment period on the proposed rules. They are expected to be finalized this summer and institutions are required to provide coverage by August.

The Catholic Health Association, Knights of Columbus and the Washington Archdiocese were among those who filed comments a few days before the deadline.

CHA’s nine-page comment was submitted April 4 and signed by Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity and the association’s president and CEO, and Deborah A. Proctor, the board’s vice chairperson/chairperson-elect.

They noted that they have “repeatedly expressed our concern with the approach the administration has taken with respect to contraceptive services, which it defines to include sterilization, contraceptive drugs, and patient education and counseling.”

CHA also took issue with the “narrow definition” of religious employers established by HHS, noting that Catholic hospitals and health care organizations as well as other religious institutional employers do not meet this definition of religious employer and their health plans are therefore not exempt from the contraceptive coverage mandate.”

The association urged for an “expanded definition of religious employer” as the “simplest way to protect religious organizations with objections to providing contraceptive coverage” calling this a “far simpler solution to the problem” that would “avoid lingering and serious difficulties.”

The Knights of Columbus filed a three-page comment to the HHS April 6 signed by Supreme Knight Carl Anderson. The letter urges “the administration to rescind the mandate altogether and chart a new course.”

If the administration chooses not to do that, it said, the administration must “expand the religious exemption so that objecting individuals and organizations do not lose their conscience rights and are not forced to cooperate in actions that genuinely violate their religious beliefs and moral convictions.”

The Knights said the mandate as it stands still fails to protect the rights of religious believers because “individuals and entities that object to paying for abortion-inducing drugs, contraception and sterilization must pay for these interventions either directly or indirectly, and they must initiate coverage for these interventions, either directly or indirectly.”

The Archdiocese of Washington filed a 15-page comment April 4 that was signed by Jane Belford, archdiocesan chancellor. It stressed that the proposed new rules from the HHS did not resolve the religious liberty issues posed by the contraceptive mandate but in fact made them worse by “eliminating an important provision that allows the exemption of an exempt religious employer to be extended to all other religiously-affiliated organizations that participate in that religious employer’s group plan.”

Belford described the “accommodation” for nonexempt religious organizations — whereby a third party could be used to cover the cost of contraceptive coverage — “an accounting maneuver that likewise effects no substantive change to existing law.” She said the new proposal “creates insurmountable administrative and logistical difficulties for organizations, such as the archdiocese and its affiliates that operate or participate in large self-insured plans that provide coverage for multiple affiliated employers.”

The Washington Archdiocese “continues to strenuously oppose the mandate” and urged the HHS to “adopt a definition of religious employer that recognizes that religious organizations do far more than operate houses of worship.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops filed comments March 20 objecting to the “unreasonable and unlawfully narrow” exemption for some nonprofit religious organizations, primarily houses of worship. It noted that the limited accommodation for religious employers continues to require those employers falling outside of the government’s definition to “fund or facilitate objectionable coverage.”

The 24 pages of comments were filed on behalf of the USCCB by Anthony R. Picarello, associate general secretary and general counsel, and Michael F. Moses, associate general counsel. They reiterated the concerns the USCCB raised when the rules governing the Affordable Care Act were first proposed in 2011.

New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, president of the USCCB, will be honored April 27 for being outspoken in his objections to the mandate on behalf of the U.S. church. He will receive the 2013 William Wilberforce Award from the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, a nonprofit organization that educates Christians on how to apply their faith to all areas of life.

By Carol Zimmermann Catholic News Service