WASHINGTON — The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) criticized Vice President Joe Biden for an “inaccurate statement of fact” about the Health and Human Services' mandate’s impact on religious institutions during last night’s vice-presidential debate.

“With regard to the assault on the Catholic Church, let me make it absolutely clear,” said Biden, when the issue of religious freedom was raised during the Oct. 11 debate in Danville, Ky. “No religious institution — Catholic or otherwise, including Catholic social services, Georgetown Hospital, Mercy Hospital, any hospital — none has to either refer contraception; none has to pay for contraception; none has to be a vehicle to get contraception in any insurance policy they provide. That is a fact.”

The following morning, the USCCB issued an unsigned statement characterizing Biden’s remarks on the federal contraception mandate as “inaccurate.”

“This is not a fact,” the bishops’ conference said in the Oct. 12 statement, which emphasized that the mandate includes only a narrow exemption for religious employers.

During the vice-presidential debate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the Republican vice-presidential candidate, immediately challenged Biden’s assertion that the dispute between the Obama administration and the U.S. bishops over the mandate had been effectively resolved.

“Now I have to take issue with [your statements regarding] the Catholic Church and religious liberty,” said Ryan. “If they agree with you, then why would they [dioceses and other Catholic institutions] keep suing you? It’s a distinction without a difference.”

Issued under the authority of the Affordable Care Act, the controversial mandate requires employers to offer health insurance that covers contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs.

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, the chairman of the U.S. bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Freedom, responded to the vice-president’s remarks during an interview with the Register, following the release of the conference’s statement of clarification.

The vice president’s suggestion that religious-freedom issues had been resolved “was inaccurate in the extreme,” stated Archbishop Lori.

“Obviously, if there were no threat to religious liberty, if the HHS mandate were not forcing us to fund and facilitate things we regard as immoral, we wouldn’t be in court seeking redress. It was both surprising and disappointing that something so blatantly inaccurate was said in such a public venue,” said the archbishop.

He expressed frustration that the controversy stirred up by the mandate didn’t receive an adequate hearing in the debate: “I thought it could have used a few more minutes to make it quite clear on the spot about the truth. I am not sure all the viewers understood the issues under review.”

The archbishop delivered a clear and simple message to any U.S. Catholics and members of the general public who might be confused by the vice-president’s remarks:

“Religious liberty is under assault from the HHS mandate, and no one should be deceived about that; and everyone should keep that in mind. It is an issue of national importance, or it would not have come up in the debate.”

In recent months, more than 100 plaintiffs — including both Catholic and non-Catholic universities, charitable organizations and private businesses — have filed lawsuits challenging the mandate, arguing that it infringes upon their constitutional right to free exercise of religion.

Ryan raised the issue of the mandate during the debate while answering a question about the Catholic faith shared by both contenders. Ryan said that the mandate “troubles” him because it threatens religious freedom.

Today, in its response to Biden’s claims, the bishops’ conference emphasized that the mandate includes only a narrow exemption for religious employers. The exemption applies only to non-profit organizations that exist primarily for the inculcation of religious values and both employ and serve primarily members of their own faith.

Therefore, the conference said, any religious charities, hospitals and social agencies that serve all people of any faith — including Georgetown Hospital and the other organizations named by Biden — are not covered by the exemption, which was finalized in February 2012.

The bishops’ conference also underscored that, while the Obama administration has proposed an additional “accommodation” for these non-exempt religious organizations, the proposal “does not even potentially relieve these organizations.”

The accommodation, which is still in its preliminary stages, offers a series of suggestions to relieve non-religious organizations from funding the controversial coverage if they object to it, while still including the coverage as part of the plans.

However, critics say the suggestions all amount to an accounting gimmick, because they would still require the objecting organizations to pay for the coverage indirectly, through necessarily increased premiums.

The bishops’ conference argued that under the proposed schemes religious organizations “will have to serve as a vehicle, because they will still be forced to provide their employees with health coverage, and that coverage will still have to include sterilization, contraception and abortifacients.”

“They will have to pay for these things, because the premiums that the organizations (and their employees) are required to pay will still be applied, along with other funds, to cover the cost of these drugs and surgeries,” it added.

The bishops’ conference said that it continues to ask the Obama administration “in the strongest possible terms” to take action that truly removes “the various infringements on religious freedom imposed by the mandate.”

Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond contributed to this report.