HHS ruling needs revision

By | August 24, 2011

On Aug. 1, the health and human services department (HHS) announced that contraceptives and sterilization would be among the mandated services for women under the new health reform law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. In a perhaps disingenuous act of reaching out to religious organizations, HHS included exemptions for religious employers who meet four criteria. The ruling states:

“A religious employer is one that:

n Has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose;

n Primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets;

n Primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets;

n And is a non-profit organization …”

As anyone who is vaguely familiar with Catholic outreach and social service knows, the church not only employs non-Catholics, it certainly serves people who do not share its religious tenets. We call it ministry.

In a nutshell, in order to comply with the HHS guidelines, Catholic hospitals would have to terminate non-Catholic employees and treat only Catholics. Then and only then could church directives on contraceptives and sterilization be enforced.

Immediately after the HHS ruling was released, Catholics leaders from all political persuasions responded in protest, arguing that the proposal violated the First Amendment’s guarantee that Congress could not make laws restricting the free exercise of religion.

HHS has invited public comment before the new religious exemption rule goes into effect. Critics of the ruling have until Sept. 30 to voice their opposition.

And vocal have opponents been.

“Whatever you think of artificial birth control, HHS’s command that everyone, including churches, must pay for it exalts ideology over conscience and common sense,” said Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“The language is not broad enough to protect our Catholic health providers,” said Sr. Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity who is president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association. “Catholic hospitals are a significant part of this nation’s health care, especially in the care of the most vulnerable. It is critical that we be allowed to serve our nation without compromising our conscience.”

Sr. Carol had been a key supporter of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, said the ruling makes it look like the federal government is pressuring Catholic institutions to “cease providing health care, education and charitable services to the general public.”

He said that health care reform “should expand access to basic health care for all, not undermine that goal.”

The HHS ruling is unfair to Catholic institutions and the people they serve. We need to voice our concerns about the injustices of this proposal before Sept. 30. Let your congressional leaders know that conscience rights and the duty to minister to people regardless of religious background can coexist. It has for more than 200 years.

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