UPDATE: This story combines an earlier report on the White House’s Feb. 10 statement and Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan’s initial response with the late-breaking response from the U.S. bishops’ conference Friday evening calling for a “recission” of the HHS contraceptive mandate..

WASHINGTON —The U.S. bishops issued a firm response this evening to the White House’s proposed “accommodation” to the HHS contraception mandate: rescission as the “only complete solution.” 

The statement makes clear the central reason why the mission of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops remains unchanged: The president “has decided to retain HHS’s nationwide mandate of insurance coverage of sterilization and contraception, including some abortifacients,” the conference statement notes. “We cannot fail to reiterate this.”

“We note that today’s proposal continues to involve needless government intrusion in the internal governance of religious institutions and to threaten government coercion of religious people and groups to violate their most deeply held convictions. In a nation dedicated to religious liberty as its first and founding principle, we should not be limited to negotiating within these parameters. The only complete solution to this religious-liberty problem is for HHS to rescind the mandate of these objectionable services,” said the USCCB statement.

“We will, therefore, continue — with no less vigor, no less sense of urgency — our efforts to correct this problem through the other two branches of government. For example, we renew our call on Congress to pass, and the administration to sign, the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act. And we renew our call to the Catholic faithful, and to all our fellow Americans, to join together in this effort to protect religious liberty and freedom of conscience for all.”

Early Friday afternoon, President Obama announced a proposed “accommodation” designed “to find a solution that works for everyone.”

In a statement released by the White House, the administration said it would exempt religious organizations from being required to either provide “contraceptive coverage or refer employees to organizations that did provide that service.”

But the White House statement left many details of the new plan unanswered — perhaps until after the 2012 presidential election.

Shortly after the president’s statement, Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan of New York, the president of the USCCB, offered a muted response to the White House’s latest bid to tamp down the political backlash over its controversial rule requiring that all private employers provide contraception coverage.

Cardinal-designate Dolan said, “While there may be an openness to respond to some of our concerns, we reserve judgment on the details until we have them.” 

In recent weeks, the New York Church leader has expressed skepticism about whether he could still trust the White House to effectively address the bishops’ objections to the federal rule.

However, Daughter of Charity Carol Keehan, the president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, immediately applauded the White House’s action. Soon after, some other Catholic Democrats, who had made common cause with the bishops, appeared to back off from the fight.

Silver Lining?

Yet, for Church leaders, there has been an unexpected silver lining in this controversy: The escalating dispute has united an often fractious body of Catholic believers, and Cardinal-designate Dolan’s remarks today expressed a desire to strengthen, rather than dissipate, that sense of common religious identity and mission. But that unity also threatened the president’s commitment to advance and secure mandated contraception under the new health bill.

“The past three weeks have witnessed a remarkable unity of Americans from all religions or none at all worried about the erosion of religious freedom and governmental intrusion into issues of faith and morals,” said Cardinal-designate Dolan.

While Cardinal-designate Dolan’s initial response was cautious, some individual bishops reaffirmed their opposition to the mandate.

Archbishop Thomas Wenski called Obama’s move a “smokescreen.” Speaking with National Public Radio today, he added, “The president has decided to kick the can down the road” in the hope that the issue “will go away.”

In the Feb. 10 statement released by the White House, the administration noted several important changes in its modified rule dealing with the contraception mandate.

“Religious organizations will not be required to subsidize the cost of contraception,” the White House asserted.

Further, “contraception coverage will be offered to women by their employers’ insurance companies directly, with no role for religious employers who oppose contraception.” 

“Insurance companies will be required to provide contraception coverage to these women free of charge,” the statement continued.

Michael Warsaw, the president and CEO of EWTN and publisher of the Register, expressed his dismay that the proposed modification did little to address his objections to the HHS contraception mandate. Yesterday, EWTN filed suit against the federal government, seeking to block the federal rule and challenge its constitutionality.

“I am certainly pleased to see that EWTN’s decision to file suit against the recent contraception mandate of the Department of Health and Human Services may have played some role in forcing the administration to revisit the application of these rules on religious institutions,” said Warsaw in a statement released today. 

“However, we remain quite skeptical that the changes announced by President Obama will in fact address the concerns raised by EWTN.” 

His statement noted that it was not clear whether the proposed modification would “actually apply to EWTN or actually give any relief to the network and other similar organizations. Like EWTN, many religious institutions self-insure their health-care plans, meaning that we will still be forced to pay for these services in violation of our religious beliefs,” he concluded.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, in a statement issued shortly after the White House’s announcement,  underscored the issue of self insurance. “The … mandate seems to require contraception coverage, including abortion-inducing drugs, to be offered to women by their employers’ insurance companies. The Archdiocese of Atlanta is self-insured, as are many Catholic institutions, so this is not a real solution,” said Archbishop Gregory.

Tonight, the USCCB statement emphasized these concerns: “We note at the outset that the lack of clear protection for key stakeholders — for self-insured religious employers; for religious and secular for-profit employers; for secular non-profit employers; for religious insurers; and for individuals — is unacceptable and must be corrected,” read the statement.

‘False Compromise’

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public-interest group that is representing pro bono EWTN and two other plaintiffs that have filed suit challenging the constitutionality of the contraception mandate, rejected the proposed “accommodation.”

“This is a false ‘compromise’ designed to protect the president’s re-election chances, not to protect the right of conscience,” said Hannah Smith, senior legal counsel for the Becket Fund. “Hundreds, if not thousands, of religious institutions are still left out in the cold and will be forced to violate their religious convictions.”

Judging from the White House statement, she said, some church-affiliated employers may be able to opt out of the federal rule, which now requires private employers to cover contraception, sterilization and abortifacient drugs. According to the outlines of this proposal, “insurance companies will provide that service free of charge.”

But an analysis issued by the Becket Fund states that three outstanding problems with this new proposal go unaddressed.

Like EWTN, thousands of religious organizations self-insure, so “they will still be forced to pay for these services in violation of their religious beliefs.”

Further, the White House statement today does not stipulate “which religious organizations are permitted to claim the new exemption and whether it will extend to for-profit organizations, individuals or nondenominational organizations.”

Finally, “money is fungible, and many religious organizations may still object to being forced to pay money to an insurance company which will turn around and provide contraception to its employees for free.”

But the Catholic Health Association’s Sister Carol Keehan issued a starkly different judgment of the modified plan.

In a statement released today, Sister Carol said she was “very pleased with the White House announcement that a resolution has been reached that protects the religious liberty and conscience rights of Catholic institutions. The framework developed has responded to the issues we identified that needed to be fixed.

“We are pleased and grateful that the religious liberty and conscience protection needs of so many ministries that serve our country were appreciated enough that an early resolution of this issue was accomplished.”

Sister Carol played a decisive role in the passage of the health bill, particularly during the bruising final weeks before it was passed by Congress, despite objections from the U.S. bishops and pro-life groups regarding potential problems with abortion funding and related issues. Sister Carol received a pen from President Obama when the health bill was signed into law.

And judging from a Feb. 10 New York Times story, “Rule Shift on Birth Control Is a Concession to Obama Allies,” she played a pivotal role in the president’s effort to break through the unexpected outcome of Catholics closing ranks against state intrusion in the internal affairs of church institutions.

The Times’ story states: “For the White House, the decision announced Friday ... was never really driven by a desire to mollify Roman Catholic bishops, who were strongly opposed to the plan.”

Faced with a mounting crisis, the president reportedly sought Sister Carol’s counsel, and she signed off on his modified plan.

“I felt like he had made a really bad decision, and I told him that,” Sister Keehan said of the president. “I told his staff that. I felt like they had made a bad decision on principle, and politically it was a bad decision. For me, another key thing was that it had the potential to threaten the future of health reform.”

Sister Carol and Bishop Kevin Vann of Fort Worth, Texas, a member of the CHA board, were contacted for further comment, but were not available. This week, the CHA held a board meeting, but it could not be confirmed whether board members had approved Sister Carol’s stance.

‘Peel Off Opponents’

Indeed, in late 2010 and early 2011, Sister Carol offered no public protest when Catholic groups, including the CHA, were not invited to public hearings designed to develop a list of approved preventive services for women, as mandated by the new bill. Thus, the final list of “preventive services for women” gave no credence to the position of Catholic health-care providers, who do not view pregnancy as a “disease” and morally object to contraception and sterilization.

During the past three weeks, Sister Carol kept a relatively low profile as the fight over the contraception mandate roiled Capitol Hill. She issued a couple of statements, and Catholic Democrats, who opposed the contraception mandate as a violation of the free exercise of religion, described it as a “betrayal” of her support for Obamacare.

Today, Sister Carol’s statement acknowledged that the public dispute between the administration and church leaders “has at times been uncomfortable, but it has helped our country sort through an issue that has been important throughout the history of our great democracy.”

Soon after Sister Carol publicly backed the “accommodation,” Tim Kaine, a Catholic and a Democratic candidate for a U.S. Senate seat from Virginia, welcomed the White House’s modification. Kaine’s likely GOP rival for the Senate seat has strongly criticized the contraception mandate.

Over the past week, Kaine, the former governor of Virginia, was among several high-profile Democrats that pressed the White House to change the policy. Pennsylvania Sen. Robert Casey, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Connecticut Congressman John Larson joined that small group of Democratic dissenters. 

For the most part, these lawmakers haven’t challenged the need to require private employers to provide co-pay-free contraception services. Rather they opposed the narrow religious exemption that forced religious social service agencies, universities and hospitals to provide, and even facilitate, services they morally opposed.

The Catholic League’s Bill Donohue characterized the White House’s latest “accommodation” as “cynical: Its effect is to peel off liberal Catholic opposition to Obamacare. In other words, the old divide-and-conquer strategy is in play. But it won’t work as nicely as they think: There are too many practicing Catholics who will only be impelled to revolt.”

Donohue expressed frustration that some of the president’s allies, who recently broke ranks over the federal rule, had already backed the new plan without waiting for the bishops’ formal judgment.

Noting that Sister Carol Keehan had already endorsed the plan, Donohue said, “I am a team player and she would never be on my team.”

Election Year

The White House’s three-week campaign of damage control has played out during a hotly contested presidential-election year. Many commentators and Democratic Party leaders like Vice President Joseph Biden, a Catholic, reportedly suggested that the dispute could backfire against the president.

But critics of the contraception mandate have expressed the fear that the administration might float a political solution that would offer no substantive accommodation to church groups, let alone a full repeal.

Hannah Smith at the Becket Fund predicted that “the details of this supposed ‘compromise’ will likely not be announced until after the election.” Thus, the accommodation could provide the president with political cover without securing the First Amendment rights of religious employers.

EWTN’s Warsaw echoed that concern. He noted “that the proposed rules for non-exempted religious organizations will still not be finalized until later in the coming year. This leaves EWTN and other such organizations very uncertain about what the future may hold with regard to this mandate.” 

Warsaw said he would “consult with our legal counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty to determine the implications of this revised approach; however, our legal action against the administration will continue.”

The White House’s statement is unlikely to alter GOP efforts on Capitol Hill, where Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is spearheading an effort to develop legislation designed to repeal the contraception mandate.

Obama’s plan, touted as a concession to freedom of religion and conscience, was immediately denounced by pro-life Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J. “The so-called new policy is the discredited old policy, dressed up to look like something else,” said Smith. “It remains a serious violation of religious freedom. Only the most naive or gullible would accept this as a change in policy.”

“The White House ‘Fact Sheet’ is riddled with doublespeak and contradiction,” Smith contended. “It states, for example, that religious employers ‘will not’ have to pay for abortion pills, sterilization and contraception, but their ‘insurance companies’ will. Who pays for the insurance policy? The religious employer.”

That harsh assessment was echoed in a statement signed by almost 100 high-profile academics, from a spectrum of religious communities, including John Garvey, the president of The Catholic University of America, Robert George of Princeton, Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard, Michael McConnell of Stanford, Thomas Farr of Georgetown, and O. Carter Snead, Richard Garnett and Gerard Bradley of Notre Dame, who said the White House had failed to effectively address the First Amendment concerns of religious institutions.

“This so-called ‘accommodation’ changes nothing of moral substance and fails to remove the assault on religious liberty and the rights of conscience which gave rise to the controversy. … The simple fact is that the Obama administration is compelling religious people and institutions who are employers to purchase a health-insurance contract that provides abortion-inducing drugs, contraception and sterilization,” read the statement. “This is a grave violation of religious freedom and cannot stand.” 

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.