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U.S. bishops say HHS mandate changes fall short, welcome working with feds on religious freedom concerns

U.S. bishops today responded to changes proposed last week to the federal Health and Human Services mandate, saying the "accommodation" falls short of solving religious freedom concerns but stressed they look forward to working with the federal government on a solution.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued a press release containing a statement by President Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York that outlined three areas of concern to the regulations proposed on Feb. 1. 

Dolan said that while the proposal appears to broaden the religious exemption from the original mandate requiring insurance coverage of abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilizations, it does not fully recognize that Catholic hospitals, schools, universities, colleges, Charities and social service organizations are an integral element of the Catholic Church.

"It appears to offer second-class status to our first-class institutions in Catholic health care, Catholic education, and Catholic charities. HHS offers what it calls an 'accommodation,' rather than accepting the fact that these ministries are integral to our Church and worthy of the same exemption as our Catholic churches," Dolan said. "And finally, it seems to take away something that we had previously—the ability of an exempt employer (such as a diocese) to extend its coverage to the employees of a ministry outside the exemption."

Dolan also stated the proposal's requirement that religious organizations offer separate insurance coverage of the morally objectionable services — albeit through a third-party administrator — needed further clarification.

"…It is still unclear how directly these separate policies would be funded by objecting ministries, and what precise role those ministries would have in arranging for these separate policies," Dolan said.

Dolan also noted the regulations do nothing to protect the conscience rights of for-profit businesses, turning them into a "third-class."

"In obedience to our Judeo-Christian heritage, we have consistently taught our people to live their lives during the week to reflect the same beliefs that they proclaim on the Sabbath," Dolan said. "We cannot now abandon them to be forced to violate their morally well-informed consciences."

However, Dolan stressed the U.S. bishops welcome the opportunity to work with the federal administration by submitting comments on the proposal during the public comment period through April 8, 2013.

"Throughout the past year, we have been assured by the Administration that we will not have to refer, pay for, or negotiate for the mandated coverage," Dolan said. "We remain eager for the Administration to fulfill that pledge and to find acceptable solutions—we will affirm any genuine progress that is made, and we will redouble our efforts to overcome obstacles or setbacks."  

Read the proposed regulations here. Read our earlier website post on the Feb. 1 regulations here.