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Religious employers decry health mandate

As the Supreme Court hears arguments on the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that everyone have health insurance, religious leaders have been weighing in on another part of the act: the mandate that all employer health insurance plans provide contraception without copayment to those who want it.

On Friday, several hundred people gathered at the federal courthouse in Wichita to protest the provision as part of a national Stand Up for Religious Freedom movement that spawned protests in more than 140 cities.

Last month, Bishop Michael Jackels of the Catholic Diocese of Wichita joined with bishops across the country in decrying the provision as a denial of religious freedom.

Noreen Carrocci, president of Newman University, a Catholic institution, wrote a letter to President Obama asking him to reconsider the decision, calling it unconstitutional.

The religious community was angered in January when the Department of Health and Human Services announced that all employer health care plans must cover birth control and other preventive services for women without co-payments and deductibles. The requirement exempts churches but includes religious nonprofits like hospitals and universities. Those institutions contended they shouldn’t be forced to pay for something that goes against their beliefs.

In February, Obama offered an accommodation under which insurance providers, not religious employers, would have to pay for contraception services.

That didn’t satisfy religious leaders, including Catholic bishops.

Jackels wrote in a Feb. 11 letter to priests, posted on the diocese website, that even with the changes, “There are serious reasons to oppose the mandate, for even if a religious employer is not required to insure services it regards as morally-objectionable, an employee can request coverage for them, which the insurer must provide as part of the religious employer’s plan at no extra cost to the employee (the employer will likely end up paying for the services through higher premiums). Also, the government is taking it upon itself to define who is religious enough for conscience protection.

“In short, even with the President’s changes, the mandate still tramples on religious liberty and conscience protection, and so we must continue to work for its repeal.”

Jackels wasn’t available for comment on Monday.

Carrocci, in a Feb. 8 letter to Obama, wrote about issues related to Catholic colleges, including the health-care provision.

“Again, it seems that your administration wants to restrict our right to the free exercise of our religion, telling us we are not free to have policies and procedures consistent with our religious beliefs and moral conscience. Not only does this ruling seem unconstitutional, it doesn’t make good business sense,” she wrote in the letter, which is posted on her blog on the school’s website.

Carrocci wrote that more than two years ago, when the university was negotiating a new health care plan for its employees with Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Kansas, “When we told them they needed to exclude contraceptives, abortions, and sterilization, they at first said they couldn’t do it. Once they realized it would be a deal breaker for us and other Catholic and faith-based entities, they found a way to do it legally. It just made good business sense!

“Please find a way to reconsider this precedent-setting, unconstitutional decision.”

The White House has not responded to the letter, according to school officials.

Kari Ann Rinker, state coordinator for the National Organization for Women, said religious employers are just trying to impose their values on employees.

“When you’re looking at religiously based universities and hospitals, you’re looking at policies that would affect millions of people that you would want to impose your religious beliefs upon,” she said. “You talk about religious consciences, what about the individual consciences of women who are employed?”

Contraception is an established medical preventive health care measure, she said.

“The World Health Organization, the United Nations, have come forward saying women’s ability to control how many, when and whether they have children is vital to women’s health. The U.S. simply needs to come into this century with that kind of thinking,” Rinker said.

She added that bishops are out of touch with mainstream society.

Troy Newman, president of the anti-abortion organization, Operation Rescue, spoke at Friday’s rally in Wichita and was surprised so many turned out for the event, which received little advance publicity. The issue, he said, has created a groundswell of passion and activism among people who have remained quiet over the abortion debate.

“The issue is polarizing enough, and has been for a number of years, but now when there’s a mandate, when people are forced to participate in something they think is immoral, they’re going to stand up,” he said.

Newman called the contraceptive measure “a frontal assault on our faith.”

“To force people to pay for it is an anathema to the American people,” he said.

Julie Burkhart, director of Trust Women, a national organization founded to carry on the vision of slain abortion provider George Tiller and expand abortion services and maternal health care to more women, said the real issue is whether women’s health care needs are being served.

“Religious institutions are free to hold the beliefs they choose. However, are they free to mandate that people who work for them and receive insurance under them should also be subjected to their ideology? I think the answer to that would be ‘No.’ People should have a choice,” she said.

Contraception is a preventive health measure “that allows women and their families to make decisions according to the circumstances that occur in their own private lives, and it benefits society as whole to have this available to women,” Burkhart said.

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