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Archbishop Kurtz to President Obama: Provide Temporary Mandate Relief for Church Ministries (4586)

The president of the U.S. bishops says such organizations should be exempted while the Supreme Court considers whether the HHS mandate violates religious freedom.

12/31/2013 Comments (17)
Addie Mena/CNA

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

– Addie Mena/CNA

WASHINGTON — In a Dec. 31 letter, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, asked President Barack Obama to temporarily exempt religious institutions from crippling fines if their insurance plans exclude sterilization, abortion-inducing drugs and contraceptives.

The letter was released one day before the mandate was scheduled to come into effect for many Catholic organizations that do not qualify for a permanent exemption from the mandate, under the terms of the “accommodation” that the administration conferred in June to a limited number of religious organizations.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, Archbishop Kurtz’s predecessor as president of the U.S. bishops' conference, subsequently indicated that the accommodation fell far short of what was required in terms of protecting religious freedom.

Archbishop Kurtz pointedly noted that while numerous groups and individuals have been given exemptions because of the problems that have occurred with implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), “One category of Americans, however, has been left out in the cold: those who, due to moral and religious conviction, cannot in good conscience comply with the HHS regulation requiring coverage of sterilization and contraceptives.”

The Catholic Church teaches authoritatively that contraception is immoral. While there may be morally legitimate reasons for a married couple to seek to regulate births, these reasons “do not justify recourse to morally unacceptable means (for example, direct sterilization or contraception),” according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2399).

Beginning Jan. 1, some institutions and organizations, including Church-sponsored universities, hospitals and social services, face fines of $100 per day, or $36,500 per year per employee, if their health-insurance plans don’t include contraceptives, abortifacients and sterilization, Archbishop Kurtz’s letter noted.

“The result is a regulation that harshly and disproportionately penalizes those seeking to offer life-affirming health coverage in accord with the teachings of their faith,” he said. “The administration’s flexibility in implementing the ACA has not yet reached those who want only to exercise what has rightly been called our ‘First Freedom’ under the Constitution.”

 

Supreme Court Challenges

Archbishop Kurtz also notes, “At least 90 lawsuits representing almost 300 plaintiffs have been filed to challenge this mandate, and the Supreme Court has agreed to hear two of these cases in its current term. Most lower courts addressing the issue have found merit in the plaintiffs’ claims and granted at least temporary relief, while some courts have denied relief or have yet to act.”

Wrote Archbishop Kurtz, “I understand that legal issues in these cases will ultimately be settled by the Supreme Court. In the meantime, however, many religious employers have not obtained the temporary relief they need in time to avoid being subjected to the HHS mandate beginning Jan. 1. I urge you, therefore, to consider offering temporary relief from this mandate, as you have for so many other individuals and groups facing other requirements under the ACA.”

 

Here is the full text of Archbishop Kurtz’s letter to President Obama:

Dear Mr. President:

On behalf of the Catholic bishops of the United States, I wish you and your family every blessing in this New Year.  The bishops pray regularly that you and our other public officials will have renewed strength to fulfill the duties of your office with integrity, justice and compassion. 

In this regard, your Administration recently relaxed the rules governing individual health plans under the Affordable Care Act, so Americans whose current plans have been canceled may claim a “hardship exemption” from some requirements.  This is the latest in a series of actions to advance the ACA’s goal of maximizing health coverage, while minimizing hardships to Americans as the Act is implemented.  For example, the ACA exempts small employers from the mandate to offer health coverage, and you have suspended this mandate for all employers through 2014. 

One category of Americans, however, has been left out in the cold: Those who, due to moral and religious conviction, cannot in good conscience comply with the HHS regulation requiring coverage of sterilization and contraceptives. This mandate includes drugs and devices that can interfere with the survival of a human being in the earliest stage of development, burdening religious convictions on abortion as well as contraception. To date, at least 90 lawsuits representing almost 300 plaintiffs have been filed to challenge this mandate, and the Supreme Court has agreed to hear two of these cases in its current Term. Most lower courts addressing the issue have found merit in the plaintiffs’ claims and granted at least temporary relief, while some courts have denied relief or have yet to act.  

Many Catholic and other nonprofit institutions caring for those in need through education, health care and other services are not exempt from the contraceptive mandate.  For reasons articulated by the courts, the Administration’s final rule of July 2013 does not alleviate the burden on their religious freedom.

Please consider, then, the result of your Administration’s current policies.  In the coming year, no employer, large or small, will be required to offer a health plan at all. Employers face no penalty in the coming year (and only $2000 per employee afterwards) for canceling coverage against their employees’ wishes, compelling them to seek individual coverage on the open market.  But an employer who chooses, out of charity and good will, to provide and fully subsidize an excellent health plan for employees – but excludes sterilization or any contraceptive drug or device – faces crippling fines of up to $100 a day or $36,500 a year per employee.  In effect, the government seems to be telling employees that they are better off with no employer health plan at all than with a plan that does not cover contraceptives.  This is hard to reconcile with an Act whose purpose is to bring us closer to universal coverage. 

The result is a regulation that harshly and disproportionately penalizes those seeking to offer life-affirming health coverage in accord with the teachings of their faith.  The Administration’s flexibility in implementing the ACA has not yet reached those who want only to exercise what has rightly been called our “First Freedom” under the Constitution. 

I understand that legal issues in these cases will ultimately be settled by the Supreme Court. In the meantime, however, many religious employers have not obtained the temporary relief they need in time to avoid being subjected to the HHS mandate beginning January 1.  I urge you, therefore, to consider offering temporary relief from this mandate, as you have for so many other individuals and groups facing other requirements under the ACA. 

Thank you for considering this urgent plea. Again, be assured of my continued prayers in the coming year as you seek to serve the American people.       

 

Sincerely yours,

Most Reverend Joseph E. Kurtz, D.D.

Archbishop of Louisville

President, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

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