The Catholic Church is scrutinizing the Obama administration’s new mandate requiring religious-based institutions to provide contraception for their employees, despite a new compromise announced Friday.
The Obama administration’s mandate ignited a religious debate, with many Catholic institutions crying out that the new mandate was a breach of their religious freedom. With the mandate’s new changes, religious organizations will not have to pay for or directly provide contraceptive services, President Obama announced Friday.
Along with several other Catholic universities, DePaul University, which is the nation’s largest Catholic university, already offers contraceptives in both its fully insured HMO plan and its self-insured PPO plan.
“The heart of it is pretty simple,” DePaul University President Father Dennis Holtschneider said in an email to The DePaulia. “DePaul fully supports the bishops’ stance, but has offered [contraceptive] benefits ever since both Illinois and the Federal government required us to do so several years ago.”
Catholic and other religious-based institutions across Illinois have historically been able to avoid a state mandate requirement to include contraception in employees’ health benefits.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement late Friday expressing their opposition to the new compromise. The Bishops oppose the new mandate saying that the rule forces private health plans to cover sterilization and contraception at “the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen”. The Bishops argue that mandated preventative services should not include birth control and contraceptives because pregnancy is not a disease.
The mandate would have forced religiously affiliated institutions—such as DePaul University—to provide access to birth control for women employees unless they can show reason for qualifying for the exemption, they must comply with the new law by August 2013. Doctors who do not agree with contraceptives will not be forced to prescribe birth control. Both the new and old mandates exclude churches and only include religiously affiliated institutions.
“Under the rule, women will still have access to free preventive care that includes contraceptives … no matter where they work, so that core principle remains,” Obama said in his announcement. “But, if a women’s place of work is a charity or a hospital that has a religious objection to provide contraceptive services as part of their health plan, the insurance company, not the hospital, not the charity, will be required to reach out and offer the woman contraceptive care free of charge, without co-pays and without hassles.”
Twelve years ago, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ruled that the exclusion of contraceptives from health insurance coverage is discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Several years later, DePaul University added birth control to its health insurance coverage after complaints from the EEOC.
DePaul University’s official statement expressed disappointment in the Obama administration’s decision not to include religious educational institutions under the exemption umbrella.
“The University’s position on this issue is fully aligned with that of the Catholic Health Association, which recently expressed its disappointment ‘that the definition of a religious employer was not broadened’ to encompass Catholic educational and other institutions in the new federal regulations for health insurance plans,” said Robin Florzak, DePaul’s interim assistant vice president of public relations and communications.
DePaul University released a new statement after the Friday amendment saying, “DePaul is encouraged by the administration’s willingness to forge a compromise, but it would be premature to discuss it further until the university has had time to fully review the administration’s new approach.”
Nearly half of Americans said religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals should be required to provide their employees with contraceptives or birth control through health care plans at no cost, according to a survey released last week by the Public Religion Research Institute. According to the survey, 52 percent of Catholics say religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals should have to provide coverage that includes contraception.
According to a study released last April by the Guttmacher Institute, 99 percent of women have used a contraceptive method other than family planning. Similarly, 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women have used contraceptive methods.
The announcement made Jan. 20 by Department of Health and Human Services Secretary, Kathleen Sibelius, has sent media personnel from Catholic and other religious-based institutions behind closed doors scrambling to generate a politically correct statement for the press.
Contraception was already partially covered through health plans of religiously affiliated institutions in 28 states. Obama’s health care law changes that coverage from partial to full.
Annie Hughes, Loyola University of Chicago’s marketing and communications associate wrote a statement about the original ruling and said: “Loyola University Chicago joins the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities … in expressing our profound disappointment in the recently announced Department of Health and Human Services ruling. The ruling narrowly defines the “religious employer” exemption and therefore requires all faith-based hospitals, universities, and social service agencies to cover contraceptive, sterilization, and abortifacient products and services in their employee and student-health plans that are contrary to the religious commitments of our institutions.”
Many of these religious officials, who oppose the new health care law, believe that their organizations should have the freedom to follow their beliefs, and that it is wrong for the Obama administration to mandate a law that goes against those beliefs.
“The key ruling that we take issue with is that the mandate, without a broader religious employer exception, constitutes an unprecedented attack on the religious liberty of Catholic and other religious institutions who have served the common good of our country since its founding, a founding based upon the very notion of religious freedom now at stake,” said Hughes.
Many Catholic universities such as Georgetown, Loyola University Chicago and Fordham University will provide contraceptives for medical reasons and not for birth control.
But, the facts presented by the Obama administration based on the Institute of Medicine’s recommendation leaves little hope that such an exemption will be granted to these institutions. According to the Institute of Medicine, one in two pregnancies are unplanned and four in 10 of those pregnancies may lead to abortions.
Still, Catholic and other religious institutions continue to argue that birth control goes against the core of their principles.
“The mandate rests upon an excessively narrow definition of “religious employer” that excludes religious hospitals, social service agencies, and universities from its definition. It undermines our ability to do our shared work with the requisite religious freedom protected by law,” Hughes said.
Obama officials have maintained that the objective of the law is not to offend or infringe upon anyone’s religious beliefs. It is intended to protect the rights of female employees who work for religious affiliated institutions.
As the debate continues, some religious leaders are encouraging their parishioners to voice their opinions to their lawmakers, while others are putting their trust in the decisions of their institutions.
“I respect very much faith-based institutions’ right to make decisions based upon their identities,” said the DePaul University CDM and law school chaplain, Tom Judge. “I also respect DePaul’s right to discern what is most consistent with our mission, as well.”
“This misguided decision on the part of the Department of Health and Human Services would force our institution to violate well-known, well-established, and, until now, well-protected moral commitments,” Hughes said. “In good conscience, we cannot abide by such a law as it stands. We are currently in conversation with our colleagues to plan further action toward correcting this erroneous decision.”
“The employee health insurance plans include a prescription contraceptive benefit, in compliance with state and federal law,” Florzak said. “An optional insurance plan that covers such benefits is available to students, also due to previously established state and federal requirements.”
According to Holtschneider, there are no conversations inside the university about changing DePaul’s health coverage with regards to contraceptives. “Illinois law remains Illinois law,” he said.
This article was co-authored by Rachel Metea and Rima Thompson and originally printed in The Depaulia.