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U.S. bishops say compromise could be reached in HHS contraceptive mandate case

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WASHINGTON — A Sept. 9 letter from USCCB officials to the Department of Health and Human Services stressed that a compromise could effectively be reached in the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive requirement.

The letter, in response to the government’s request for comments on a proposal mandating contraceptive coverage, echoed the Supreme Court’s May 16 decision in Zubik v. Burwell — the combined lawsuit of the Little Sisters of the Poor, Priests for Life, and several other religious groups, that said providing contraception coverage to employees through their insurance plans violated their religious beliefs.

Bishop David A. Zubik of Pittsburgh and Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington are seen near the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington March 23. A Sept. 9 letter from U. S. bishops'  officials to the Department of Health and Human Services stressed that a compromise could effectively be reached in the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive requirement.(CNS photo/Joshua Roberts, Reuters)

Bishop David A. Zubik of Pittsburgh and Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington are seen near the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington March 23. A Sept. 9 letter from U. S. bishops’ officials to the Department of Health and Human Services stressed that a compromise could effectively be reached in the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive requirement.(CNS photo/Joshua Roberts, Reuters)

The court sent the cases back to the lower courts saying religious employers and the government should be “afforded an opportunity to arrive at an approach going forward that accommodates petitioners’ religious exercise while at the same time ensuring that women covered by petitioners’ health plans receive full and equal health coverage, including contraceptive coverage.”

For this accommodation to happen, the USCCB letter stressed that “any government-mandated contraceptive coverage must be truly independent of petitioners and their plans,” meaning the coverage should be offered by a separate communication and with a different policy, enrollment process, insurance card and payment source.

The letter, signed by members of the USCCB’s general counsel, also said such coverage should not be automatic in order to protect the conscience rights of people with religious objections to contraception and sterilization coverage.

It said that another look at the HHS contraceptive requirement provides an opportunity for the government to “bring to an end years of church-state litigation and, in turn, to avoid a legacy of ongoing and unnecessary conflict with substantial portions of the religious community in the United States.”

It also noted that the Supreme Court had urged the litigants “to resolve this matter amicably” which the letter said they had done by “describing, in good faith and in great detail, a way to reach an amicable resolution.”

But these groups cannot change the regulations, the letter added, stressing that only the government could and should do this instead of ignoring “the sincerely held and repeatedly stated religious objections of a substantial minority of our civil society.”

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Supreme Court will hear appeals in Catholic cases against contraceptive mandate — updated

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court justices said Nov. 6 they will hear seven pending appeals in lawsuits brought by several Catholic and other faith-based entities against the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate.

The court will hear appeals from groups in Colorado, Maryland, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas and the District of Columbia.

Members of the Little Sisters of the Poor attend the 2014 celebration of the third Fortnight for Freedom Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore. The Supreme Court agreed Nov. 6 to hear appeals filed by the Little Sisters and other groups against the Obama administration's contraceptive mandate. (CNS photo/Tom McCarthy Jr., Catholic Review)

Members of the Little Sisters of the Poor attend the 2014 celebration of the third Fortnight for Freedom Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore. The Supreme Court agreed Nov. 6 to hear appeals filed by the Little Sisters and other groups against the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate. (CNS photo/Tom McCarthy Jr., Catholic Review)

Among the plaintiffs are the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Archdiocese of Washington, the Pittsburgh and Erie dioceses, Priests for Life, Southern Nazarene University and Texas Baptist University.

Under the federal Affordable Care Act, most employers, including religious ones, are required to cover employees’ artificial birth control, sterilization and abortifacients, even if employers are morally opposed to such coverage.

In all the cases to be argued before the high court in March, appellate courts in various jurisdictions sided with the Obama administration. The rulings said the religious entities’ freedom of religion was not burdened by having to comply with the mandate as they have argued, because the federal government has in place an accommodation for a third party to provide the contested coverage.

But the religious groups object to that notification, saying they still would be complicit in supporting practices they oppose. While their appeals worked their way to the high court, the government has not been able to force the groups to comply with the mandate or face daily fines for noncompliance.

The Archdiocese of Washington said it “is heartened to learn that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review the D.C. Circuit’s flawed ruling in our challenge to the HHS (Health and Human Services) mandate, together with the other challenges pending before the court.”

“A particular concern for the archdiocese is the government’s treatment of Catholic educational and charitable ministries as if they are somehow less religious than houses of worship, and therefore less deserving of the right to operate in accord with the church’s teachings,” it said in a statement. “The archdiocese is hopeful that the court will vindicate our religious freedom, and the freedom of Catholic ministries also seeking to practice their faith freely, as guaranteed under the law.

Only those religious employers that meet narrow criteria set by the Obama administration are exempt from the mandate. Houses of worship are exempt, for example, but most Catholic and other religious employers are not.

Nonexempt religious employers can opt out of providing the coverage using what the administration calls an accommodation, or “work around.” They must notify Health and Human Services in writing of their religious objections. Then HHS or the Department of Labor government in turn tells insurers and third-party administrators that they must cover the services at no charge to employees.

In an afternoon telephone news conference, a spokesman for the Becket Fund, whose lawyers represent the Little Sisters of the Poor, said the Obama administration had “strenuously argued” that the high court not take the Little Sisters of the Poor case.

The government “argued hard and the court granted it anyway,” said Mark Rienzi, Becket’s senior counsel. “So the government will have to explain why they fought hard to make the Little Sisters cover contraceptives.”

Josh Earnest, White House press secretary, was quoted as saying the Obama administration is certain “the policy that we have in place balances the need for millions of Americans to have access to birth control while also protecting the right of religious freedom that is protected in our Constitution.”

Pittsburgh Bishop David A. Zubik in a statement said the Religious Freedom Restoration Act “goes to the very heart of our concerns.” The 1993 law was enacted “to respect the teachings of all religious bodies and the practices of individual believers,” he noted.

“The insurance mandate, which is one small provision of the Affordable Care Act, would require us to facilitate access to contraceptives, sterilization and abortifacients contrary to our teaching,” he said.

Bishop Lawrence T. Persico of Erie, Pennsylvania, in his statement said he was pleased his diocese and the others “will have our day in court.”

“Religious liberty protects the right of each of us to pursue the truth, to embrace it, and to shape our lives around it — all without government interference,” Bishop Persico said. “We are hopeful the court will uphold religious liberty, one of the essential pillars upon which our country has thrived for centuries.”

In its petition to the court, written by U.S. Solicitor General Donald B. Verilli Jr., the government said that houses of worship are different than church organizations. Churches themselves should be exempt because their employees are likely to share their employers’ religious beliefs, the government argued, while faith-based universities, charities and other organizations have more employees who do not share the beliefs of their employers and so the mandate should be enforced for those employers.

Robert Muise of the American Freedom Law Center, which represents the Priests for Life, called it “great news” that organization’s appeal will be heard along with the others.

On Nov. 9, Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, announced a special prayer campaign for the Supreme Court to reverse the HHS mandate. The organization’s prayer website, PrayerCampaign.org, has a link to special prayers written for the campaign.

“Victory for us and the other six cases means victory for every believer,” Father Pavone said in a statement. “It is not the government that decides what does or does not contradict our faith and our conscience. It is the believer, in union with his or her church, who determines that. This is the essence of religious freedom.”

The cases the court accepted are: Zubik v. Burwell; Priests for Life v. Department of HHS; Roman Catholic Archbishop v. Burwell; Texas Baptist University v. Burwell; Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell; Southern Nazarene University v. Burwell; and Geneva College v. Burwell. The court is expected to refer to the cases collectively as Zubik v. Burwell. Sylvia Mathews Burwell is the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

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Supreme Court upholds health care subsidies in states with federal exchanges

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Writing that “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them,” a 6-3 majority of the Supreme Court June 25 upheld tax subsidies for participants in health care exchanges run by the federal government in states that refused to create them.

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts disentangled what he said was “more than a few examples of inartful drafting” in how the 2010 law was written that contributed to the interpretation that federal subsidies for people with lower income should only be available to residents of states that created their own health care exchanges. Read more »

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Judge rules against bishops on program for trafficking victims

March 27th, 2012 Posted in National News Tags: , , ,

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — Religiously based restrictions on reproductive health services for victims of human trafficking cannot be imposed by the Department of Health and Human Services, a federal judge has ruled.

By delegating to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops the decision on which services to offer or not offer to trafficking victims, HHS violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, Judge Richard G. Stearns ruled March 23 in the case filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in federal court in Massachusetts.

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Bishops studying new HHS proposal on contraceptive mandate

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department for Health and Human Services March 16 proposed new ways for religious organizations that have moral objections to providing free contraceptives to their employees to comply with the requirement.

Among the suggestions proposed are having the costs covered by a “third-party administrator” of a health plan or “independent agency” that receive funds from other sources, such as rebates from drug makers.

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White House announces shift in health-care mandate

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Staff reporter

 

The White House announced this morning a compromise that it says will not force religious employers to pay for contraceptives as part of their insurance coverage. Instead, the responsibility and cost will shift to insurance companies.

According to senior Obama administration officials, the compromise was reached after talks were held this week with various “stakeholders.” The policy accomplishes two important goals, one official said: making affordable contraceptive coverage available and protecting the conscience objections of faith-based institutions. Read more »

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Bishops fighting federal health-care contraception coverage rule

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — A week after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services told individuals and institutions who oppose contraception “to hell with you,” as one bishop put it, members of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy were mobilizing their followers to fight.

Bishops across the country, including Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta, Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond of New Orleans and Bishop Robert N. Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla., were preparing letters to be read at all Masses during the Jan. 28-29 weekend.

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Suit challenging contract with bishops’ agency awaits decision

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — A lawsuit pending in a Massachusetts federal court may determine if the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services can allow religiously based restrictions on reproductive health services in agreements with private agencies to provide social services.

The suit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in Boston in January 2009, stems from a now ended five-year contract that HHS signed with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to provide case management services to foreign-born victims of human trafficking through its Migration and Refugee Services.

ACLU claims that the bishops’ conference dictated terms of the contract it received from the government to serve trafficking victims in violation of the separation of church and state provisions of the U.S. Constitution. ACLU attorneys maintain that the government, because it is spending taxpayer dollars, must set the terms of the contract.

The headquarters of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is seen in Washington Nov. 4. Staff with the U.S. bishops' Migration and Refugee Services said they were shocked and mystified in September when HHS notified MRS it had denied a federal grant for the MRS program aiding foreign-born victims of human trafficking. (CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

Michael O. Leavitt, then Secretary of Health and Human Services, was named as the chief defendant. Since then Kathleen Sebelius, current health and human services secretary, has replaced Leavitt as the government’s defendant.

The USCCB joined the case as an intervenor and, through its attorney, argued that its intention under the contract not to fund abortion or contraceptive services was permitted because of religious freedom and conscience provisions in federal law.

The parties submitted final arguments to Judge Richard G. Stearns Oct. 18. He is expected to issue his decision early in 2012.

The contract in question, which expired Oct. 10, permitted MRS to adhere to church teaching and restrict agencies subcontracted to work with trafficking victims from providing services that were contrary to church teaching.

ACLU attorney Brigitte Amiri told CNS the case was filed because it is not the government’s prerogative to restrict access to health services that are legal.

“We believe it’s a violation of the separation of church and state to allow a religious entity to dictate the terms of a federal contract on how money should be spent,” Amiri said. “Not all trafficking victims need such services, but they need a host of reproductive services including contraception and, if pregnant, abortion.”

She added that the civil liberties organization found it “disturbing that the Catholic bishops forced this on the case managers even if they themselves have no objection to referring for such services.”

Attorney Henry C. Dinger, representing the USCCB, told CNS that a key argument focused on whether the ACLU was permitted to challenge the provisions of the contract because it was not an injured party.

The judge ruled that ACLU was within its rights to file the suit.

“If they have standing, then we’ve argued that the decision to award the contract was not a violation of the Establishment Clause (in the Constitution),” Dinger said.

“Health and Human Services awarded the contract in spite of the conscience exemption over abortion and contraceptive services,” he explained. “They didn’t view the unwillingness to fund abortion and contraceptive services as an impediment and that the other positives (MRS provided) outweighed that.”

U.S. Department of Justice attorneys argued that the contract had expired, making the case moot.

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the case.

Dinger and Amiri said it was in both organizations’ interest to get a decision because it is likely the issue will surface again. An appeal is expected no matter how Stearns rules.

The suit has moved slowly because of numerous freedom of information requests filed by the ACLU to obtain public documents related to the contract award and subsequent motions by both parties.

Among the documents cited in the lawsuit was the church agency’s Feb. 23, 2006, technical proposal to the HHS office that administers human trafficking programs. It said, “As we are a Catholic organization we need to ensure that our victim services funds are not used to refer or fund activities that would be contrary to our moral convictions and religious beliefs. … Specifically, subcontractors could not provide or refer for abortion services or contraceptive materials.”

The HHS office then asked the USCCB, according to the lawsuit, whether a “‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy (would) work regarding the exception. What if a subcontractor referred victims supported by stipend to a third-party agency for such services?”

In response, the lawsuit said, the USCCB explained it “cannot be associated with an agency that performs abortions or offers contraceptives to our clients. If they sign the written agreement (the subcontract), the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ wouldn’t apply because they are giving an assurance to us that they wouldn’t refer for or provide abortion service to our client using contract funding.”

The USCCB program received slightly more than $19 million during the five-and-a-half years of the contract, assisting nearly 2,783 trafficking victims and family members.

MRS officials have maintained that requests for services the church opposes were rare during the contract term.

 

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‘Morning- after’ pill won’t be available to girls under 17

December 12th, 2011 Posted in National News Tags: , , , ,

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — The U.S. bishops’ pro-life spokeswoman said she was relieved that the Obama administration has decided not to allow the Plan B One-Step “morning-after pill” to be sold without a prescription to those under 17.

“Luckily, things did not go from bad to even worse,” Deirdre McQuade, assistant director for policy and communications at the USCCB Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, told Catholic News Service Dec. 8. “We’re pleased that they did not expand access to this very powerful drug.”

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Federal official defends ending grants to bishops’ agency

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Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — A U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops program aiding victims of human trafficking was denied funding after its administrators declined to propose alternatives to a government requirement that female victims receive “the full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care,” a Department of Health and Human Services official told a congressional committee.

Under grueling questioning from Republican members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Dec. 1, George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary of the Administration for Children and Families, said he made the final decision to award grants worth $4.7 million to three other agencies that agreed to provide access to services such as abortion, contraception and sterilization under the National Human Trafficking Victim Assistance Program.

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