LINCOLN — The re-election of President Barack Obama may ignite a showdown with Catholic leaders over a federal mandate that religiously affiliated charities, universities and hospitals provide birth control coverage to their employees.
“The Catholic Church is not going to back down,” said Denver Auxiliary Bishop James Conley, who will start as the new bishop of the Lincoln Diocese on Nov. 20. “We are never going to compromise our principles. We will defy it and face the consequences.”
Roman Catholic officials in Omaha and Des Moines expressed similar sentiments this week over a plan by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services requiring all employers to provide their employees contraception coverage without copays.
The so-called HHS mandate for religious organizations, currently the subject of dozens of legal challenges nationally, is set to take effect next August.
Church doctrine opposes all forms of contraception, including vasectomies, tubal ligations and drugs that induce abortion. As a result, Catholic-affiliated organizations and some companies owned by Catholics and other Christians exclude such procedures or drugs from their insurance plans.
While the bishops are united in opposition to the mandate, a significant number of Catholic voters apparently cared more about other issues when they cast ballots in the presidential election.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a preliminary analysis Wednesday that said 50 percent of Catholics backed the Democratic president while 48 percent voted for Republican Mitt Romney, who pledged to repeal the mandate if elected.
Nonetheless, the church’s official position on contraception leaves little room for compromise, the bishops say.
“Litigation, legislation and worst-case scenario would be the decision whether to comply or refuse to embrace something that’s against the teaching of the church,” said Deacon Tim McNeil, chancellor of the Omaha Archdiocese.
Members of the Obama administration argue that they’ve offered an olive branch in response to objections.
Federal officials have said they will allow exceptions for organizations that employ and serve people of the same faith. Catholic, evangelical Christian and other faith leaders, however, say the exception wouldn’t extend to schools, universities, social service agencies and health care facilities, all of which may employ people of various faiths or even nonbelievers.
Administration officials also say religious organizations could opt out of making the coverage payments directly, passing along the expense to their insurers.
“I believe this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services,” HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement released earlier in the year.
Opponents of the rule say the exceptions are inadequate.
“Insurance companies have said there is no free lunch, (religious groups are) going to end up paying for it, so it’s a shell game,” said Emily Hardman, communications director for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C., firm that takes up legal cases for all religious faiths.
Catholic bishops regard the mandate as a violation of religious freedom, compelling them to provide services they morally oppose. The church has always seen its charitable work, hospitals and schools as part of its broader ministry, said Bishop Richard Pates of the Diocese of Des Moines.
“It’s just as much a part of our faith as saying prayers inside of church,” he said.
Refusal to provide the coverage could prompt civil fines of up to $100 per day for each uncovered employee. While the church leaders said they hope a resolution can be reached, such fines would leave no other option but to close the affected institutions.
Forty lawsuits remain active in courts across the country, arguing that the mandate violates the First Amendment protection of religious freedom, Hardman said. A lawsuit brought by Nebraska Attorney Gen. Jon Bruning was dismissed by a federal judge in Lincoln, who essentially ruled that it was filed prematurely and without cause.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will gather next week in Baltimore. The HHS mandate undoubtedly will be discussed.
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