Mr Barack Obama making a statement on Feb 10 about the federal mandate on contraceptive coverage. Beside him is Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.

ROME – President Barack Obama’s revision to a controversial contraceptive mandate has done nothing to change bishops’ opposition to what they regard as an unconstitutional infringement on religious liberty, says a top US Church leader.

“What [Obama] offered was next to nothing. There’s no change, for instance, in these terribly restrictive mandates and this grossly restrictive definition of what constitutes a religious entity,” said Cardinal-designate Timothy M Dolan of New York, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops on Feb 13.

“The principle wasn’t touched at all.”

In a move that appeared unlikely to end controversy over a federal mandate that all health insurance plans include contraception and sterilisation free of charge, Mr Obama on Feb 10 outlined a plan that would allow religious employers not to offer such services to their employees but would compel insurance companies to do so.

“No woman’s health should depend on who she is, who she works for or how much money she makes,” Mr Obama said. He said the new policy remains faithful to the “core principle” of free preventive care, but also honours the principle of religious freedom, which “as a Christian, I cherish”.

Cardinal-designate Dolan said the revision of the Department of Health and Human Services’ contraceptive mandate would shift the costs of contraceptives from the policyholders to the insurers, thus failing to ensure that Catholic individuals and institutions would not have to pay for services that they consider immoral.

For one thing, the cardinal-designate said, many dioceses and Catholic institutions are self-insuring. Moreover, Catholics with policies in the compliant insurance companies would be subsidising others’ contraception coverage. He also objected that individual Catholic employers would not enjoy exemption under Mr Obama’s proposal.

“My brother-in-law, who’s a committed Catholic, runs a butcher shop. Is he going to have to pay for services that he as a convinced Catholic considers to be morally objectionable?” he asked.

The cardinal-designate said the bishops are “very, very enthusiastic” about the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, introduced by Congressman Jeff Fortenberry. The cardinal said the legislation would produce an “ironclad law simply saying that no administrative decrees of the federal government can ever violate the conscience of a religious believer individually or religious institutions”.

Bishop William E. Lori, chairman of the US bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, told Catholic News Service, “Our religious freedom is too precious to be protected only be regulations. It needs legislative protection. More legislators, I think, are looking at it.”

Cardinal-designate Dolan said some “very prominent attorneys”, some of them non-Catholic and even non-religious, have volunteered to represent the bishops.

A US administration official told Catholic News Service in an email on Feb 13 that the White House plans to convene a series of meetings “with faith-based organisations, insurers and other interested parties to develop policies that respect religious liberty and ensure access to preventive services for women enrolled in self-insured group health plans sponsored by religious organisations”. - CNS

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