By Elise Viebeck - 03/11/13 03:10 PM EDT
A dark-horse papal contender is urging support for a bill that would vastly weaken the Obama administration's birth control coverage mandate.
Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston, called on lawmakers Friday to exempt any employer who objects to birth control from having to meet the healthcare law's mandate for providing the coverage to employees.
O'Malley wrote that Rep. Diane Black's (R-Tenn.) legislation preserves the "vitally important traditions of religious freedom and the right of conscience."
O'Malley is in Rome this week to participate in the election of the next pope. A leading Italian newspaper recently named him among the favorites to lead the Catholic Church.
The birth control mandate was passed as part of President Obama's healthcare law and has been repeatedly criticized by Catholic leaders. The mandate requires that most employers cover a range of birth control methods in their employee health plans without a copay.
Churches and houses of worship are exempt, and insurance companies have been drafted to offer the coverage independently to employees of other religiously affiliated institutions, such as Catholic hospitals.
Black's bill would provide an exemption for employers who have personal objections to birth control. It would provide a broad exclusion for anyone who "has a moral or religious objection" to birth control, including the morning-after pill.
The bill would also allow religious healthcare professionals to sue if they are forced to perform an abortion.
O'Malley wrote Friday's letter in his capacity as head of an anti-abortion committee within the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The conclave to choose the new pope begins Tuesday.