Contraception mandate lacks respect for Catholic beliefs, 18 colleges say

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Eighteen Catholic colleges and universities have asked the Obama administration to exempt all religious objectors from a mandate requiring health insurance plans to cover sterilizations and contraceptives, including some abortion-causing drugs. They say the mandate is an illegal violation of religious freedom and lacks respect for Catholic beliefs.

“This health insurance mandate is potentially very damaging to Catholic higher education, both in its immediate impact on the moral climate of colleges and universities and its broader implications for the Constitutional rights of religious employers,” said Msgr. Stuart Swetland, executive director of the Cardinal Newman Society’s Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education, which organized the Sept. 29 letter to the Obama administration.

Msgr. Swetland said the new regulations’ “lack of respect” for the beliefs of Catholic individuals and institutions, among others, is “startling and unprecedented in modern federal regulations.”

On Aug. 1 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued regulations explaining the preventive services in women’s health required by the 2010 health care legislation. The rules require nearly all new health plans to cover all government-approved methods of contraception as well as surgical sterilization. Among the required drugs is Ella, a contraceptive which can cause an early abortion.

Although the Obama administration also proposed religious exemptions for the plans, this exemption applies only to religious organizations that primarily employ and serve fellow believers and that have teaching religious values as their primary purpose.

Catholic bishops and legal scholars have said the exemption does not include Catholic social service agencies and institutions of higher education.

“Catholic institutions will not compromise on the question of the immorality of contraception and sterilization or the grave injustice of abortion,” said Msgr. Swetland, who is also vice president for Mission at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md. “The administration seems to be telling Catholic institutions that the only way we can operate in their America is to abandon our core ethical beliefs. This law and its outrageously narrow religious exemption cannot stand.”

The Catholic colleges’ letter asks the HHS to issue “a blanket, non-discretionary exemption from the mandate for any employer, issuer, payer, individual, or entity who in his or its own determination has any religious or moral objection to providing, issuing, enrolling in, participating in, paying for or otherwise facilitating or cooperating in coverage of any required practice or of any required provision of information.”

The colleges said the proposed religious exemption was “potentially so narrow” as to be “nearly inconsequential” and was “insulting” to religious entities, particularly Catholic colleges and universities.

The letter charged that the mandate “blatantly violates” religious freedom rights protected throughout federal law by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the First Amendment, and the Fourteenth Amendment.
Signatories to the letter include Aquinas College in Tennessee, Ave Maria University, Benedictine College, Catholic Distance University, Christendom College, the College of Saint Mary Magdalen in New Hampshire, the College of St. Thomas More in Texas, DeSales University, Franciscan University of Steubenville, Holy Apostles College & Seminary in Connecticut, John Paul the Great Catholic University in California, and Mount St. Mary’s University. 

The other institutional signatories are Saint Gregory’s University in Oklahoma, Thomas Aquinas College in California, the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire, the University of Mary in North Dakota, the University of St. Thomas in Texas, and Wyoming Catholic College.

Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Curry of Los Angeles, who chairs the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Catholic Education, signed the appeal in his personal capacity. Also signing was the Society of Catholic Social Scientists.

The letter, authored by attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund, summarized Catholic teaching against abortion, sterilization and contraception. It also explained Catholic bishops’ expectations for Catholic colleges and universities. These include a commitment to fidelity to Catholic teaching, a commitment to provide health care services in conformity with Catholic teaching, and a commitment to a campus culture that is “expressive and supportive of a Catholic way of life.”

Signatories of the letter said Catholic higher education includes a commitment to encourage “moral behavior” among employees and students and an expectation that students do not engage in sexual activity outside of marriage.

Other leaders in Catholic education have also opposed the mandate.

On Sept. 28 University of Notre Dame president Fr. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., wrote a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius asking for a broader religious exemption.

The present regulation would compel Notre Dame to “either pay for contraception and sterilization in violation of the church's moral teaching, or to discontinue our employee and student health care plans in violation of the church's social teaching,” Fr. Jenkins wrote. “It is an impossible position.”

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