HHS birth control mandate is ‘attack on our religious freedom’

MISHAWAKA — “We can’t violate our conscience and therefore, we will fight it.”

Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades was adamant when asked if the Catholic Church will comply with a federal mandate forcing many church-affiliated institutions to cover free birth control for employees. That announcement, made by the Department of Health and Human Services earlier this month, both surprised and upset religious groups, while fueling a national debate about the reach of government.

“The decision by the Obama administration last Friday (Jan. 20) to go ahead with this mandate is a decision that is really unconscionable,” Bishop Rhoades said, seated next to the president and CEO of Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center, Albert Gutierrez, during a Jan. 26 press conference. “It is an attack on our religious freedom, attempting to force us to violate our conscience.”

In what she describes as a concession, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has said nonprofit institutions such as Church-affiliated hospitals, colleges and social service agencies will have one additional year to comply with the requirement, issued in regulations under President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.

Gutierrez said Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center, in concert with Catholic Health Association is “disappointed” the definition of religious employer was not broadened in the Jan. 20 decision by HHS.

“This was a missed opportunity to be clear on appropriate conscience protection,” Gutierrez said, adding, it is “important to have clarified by the president and the secretary of Health and Human Services that this decision will not undermine the current conscious protections in laws, which are so very necessary for all of our ministries.”

Asked how the Church can ignore a federal mandate, Bishop Rhoades was unequivocal.

“We will not comply with this. We will not violate our conscience,” he said. “The U.S. Bishops are united in this, and I think that this refusal to exempt religious institutions that serve the common good, which we are doing, is really an unprecedented decision.”

Bishop Rhoades said despite the so-called exemption, all Catholic institutions are affected.

“The religious exemption they have is so narrow; it’s ridiculous,” added Bishop Rhoades. “The only way we could be exempt from this is if we only hired Catholics, if we only served Catholics. Our calling, our Catholic hospitals like Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center here, our Catholic colleges and universities, our Catholic Charities that serves thousands of needy people in Indiana — South Bend, Fort Wayne and in between — we don’t ask people when they come to our hospitals or to our universities or to our Catholic Charities what their religion is. We serve everyone. That’s our calling, our mission. In a sense we’re being penalized, and we’re serving the common good, we’re serving all of society.”

“This is really an unprecedented rule from the federal government,” continued Bishop Rhoades, “attempting to force religious institutions — and others, not just institutions but also individuals — to do things that we consider immoral; things that we consider sinful. In this case, that’s providing, through our healthcare for our employees, contraception, sterilization and even drugs that cause early abortion.”

How will the Catholic Church handle such governmental intrusion?

“We have one year,” replied Bishop Rhoades. “This is an order from one branch of government, the executive branch … actually, the Department of Health and Human Services. There are two other branches of government, the legislative and the judicial. We have recourse in both of those branches.”

Asked what Catholics can do, Bishop Rhoades was direct.

“I think we all need to pray hard,” he said. “Everyone needs to get involved. We’re in an election season. This is an issue I think our people — Catholics, and others who are concerned about religious liberty — need to ask candidates who are running about their positions on this, and their position on religious liberty in general and conscience protection.”

Posted on February 1, 2012, to: