Catholic Bishops oppose revisions to contraception mandate

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) said Thursday that it remains opposed to the Obama administration's contraception mandate, arguing Catholic institutions will have "second-class status" under the policy despite recent tweaks to its rules.

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The USCCB said the policy will require Catholic institutions to have a hand in healthcare coverage they find immoral.

"Because the stakes are so high, we will not cease from our effort to assure that healthcare for all does not mean freedom for few," Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the USCCB, said in a statement.

The group was initially noncommittal last week after the Obama administration released new regulations on the contraception mandate and its "accommodations" for religious-affiliated institutions, such as Catholic hospitals and universities. 

But on Thursday, the bishops said last week's rules ensure that employees of a religious institution would automatically receive contraception coverage through their insurance companies.

"It appears that the government would require all employees in our 'accommodated' ministries to have the illicit coverage — they may not opt out, nor even opt out for their children — under a separate policy," Dolan said.

He said the USCCB will file formal comments on the regulations.

Although billed as another accommodation to religious groups that oppose contraception, the regulations released last Friday made only minor changes to the substance of the policy.

The administration's policy requires most employers to cover contraception in their employees' healthcare plans without charging a copay or deductible. Churches and houses of worship are entirely exempt. Religious-affiliated institutions don't have to directly finance the coverage, but their employees will still receive cost-free contraception through the employer's insurance company.

The USCCB wanted a broader exception that would allow any employer to opt out of the mandate based on his or her religious or ethical beliefs. Democrats strongly oppose that approach.

“It appears to offer second-class status to our first-class institutions in Catholic healthcare, Catholic education and Catholic charities," Dolan said. "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 he appreciates the administration's statements that it does not want to make religious employers pay for or offer contraception. But the latest iteration doesn't meet that goal, he 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," Dolan said.