Eighteen Catholic colleges, universities and educational programs nationwide have urged the Obama administration to respect the religious freedom of all who object to its contraception mandate.

The colleges argued that the promised accommodation to the mandate fails to resolve the underlying problems and instead “creates a religious caste system.”

On May 30, the Alliance Defense Fund filed a formal comment with the Department of Health and Human Services on behalf of several Catholic colleges and educational institutions, including Benedictine College, Christendom College, John Paul the Great Catholic University and Wyoming Catholic College and the Cardinal Newman Society.

The comment responds to the controversial federal mandate that will require employers and colleges to offer health-insurance plans that cover contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs, even if doing so violates their consciences. Although the mandate includes a religious exemption, few organizations would qualify for it because it applies only to nonprofit groups that exist for the purpose of inculcating religious values and both serve and employ primarily members of their own faiths. Widespread criticism of the mandate led the Obama administration to publish a new “advance notice of proposed rulemaking” in March. The notice outlines various recommendations for different ways to implement the mandate as it will apply to religious organizations that oppose the required coverage but do not qualify for the exemption. The administration has invited public comment on the advance notice until June 19. It will then move forward with the process of issuing further regulations on the implementation of the mandate.

Despite the promise of an accommodation, more than 50 organizations and individuals have filed lawsuits against the federal government, arguing that the mandate violates their right to religious freedom. Under the new recommendations, insurance companies or third-party administrators would offer the objectionable coverage free of charge for organizations deemed religious enough to qualify for the “accommodation.” In theory, these products and procedures could be offered for free because they will save the insurance companies money in the long run. However, critics have observed that, in reality, sterilization and contraception have significant “front-end costs,” sometimes reaching thousands of dollars. These cannot be paid for with theoretical future savings, but will instead likely come from increased premiums charged to the objecting employers.

In addition, even if this plan were financially practical, it still “fails to grasp the religious objection” of the employers, who object not only to paying for the contraceptives, but “to facilitating the coverage in any way,” the colleges said. In addition, they noted, the new recommendations would not offer relief to for-profit business owners who object to offering plans that include the coverage, individuals who object to being enrolled in such plans and insurance companies that object to providing such coverage.

Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, they said, “all these stakeholders must be respected.” The colleges also noted that the advance notice is not an actual proposed amendment or even a binding promise of a later amendment. The final rule has already been published without the inclusion of any “accommodation,” they observed.

In addition, they pointed out that if contraception access were such an important goal for the government, there are means of achieving this goal without restricting religious freedom. For example, they said, the government could issue “a mandate on the contraception-manufacturing industry to give its items away for free.”

The colleges asked the administration to “provide a blanket, non-discretionary exemption” for any employer, insurance company or individual who has a moral or religious objection to participating or facilitating the coverage in any way. In addition, they asked that all drugs which “can cause the demise of conceived human embryos” be eliminated from the mandate, in keeping with federal laws that prohibit abortion mandates.

Finally, they called on the government to acknowledge that “pregnancy is not a disease” and to repeal the underlying guideline describing contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs as “preventive care.” The government must respect the religious and moral objections of any individuals or organizations that object to being required to “facilitate, offer or pay for” contraceptives and similar coverage, the colleges said. They argued that these stakeholders “have a right not to be forced to choose between offering such coverage, paying a fine and suffering lawsuits, or offering no coverage at all.”