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Roman Catholic bishops bridle at Obama's contraception compromise in health care mandate

| Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013, 11:56 p.m.
In this photo from May 2012, Bishop David A. Zubik of the Diocese of Pittsburgh announces a lawsuit in opposition to the federal mandate regarding birth control. File photo
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Bishop david A. Zubik of the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese announces a lawsuit in oppositiion to the mandate regarding birth control on Monday May 21, 2012.

The Obama administration's latest compromise on birth control coverage falls short of addressing the concerns of U.S. bishops, Roman Catholic leaders said on Thursday.

“One of the things I think is really important to understand is that the church is really trying to work with the government to hammer out a solution that will be very respectful to our religious freedom,” Bishop David A. Zubik of the Diocese of Pittsburgh said after reading a statement that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued earlier in the day.

“I think we have made some progress, but we still have a way to go,” Zubik said. “We're going to continue to work hard ... (to) resolve this issue so that we don't violate our sense of religious liberties and our principles.”

The Conference of Catholic Bishops said a bigger buffer is needed between religious charities and any third party arranging contraceptive coverage. Bishops also want a clearer statement that faith-affiliated hospitals and other nonprofits are religious ministries.

“My concerns include the fact that the (Department of Health and Human Services) mandate maintains inaccurate distinctions among religious ministries and the fact that the mandate still does not offer conscience protections to individuals and employers who object to providing health insurance coverage for services they find morally objectionable,” said Bishop Lawrence E. Brandt of the Diocese of Greensburg.

“(The Obama administration) appears to offer second-class status to our first-class institutions in Catholic health care, Catholic education and Catholic charities,” said Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The bishops continue to press for an exemption for owners of for-profit businesses who say the requirement forces them to violate their religious beliefs.

Brandt and Zubik said they are concerned that the government has given no indication it is considering a religious opt-out for business owners.

“It is important that the conscience rights and religious freedoms of all employers — Catholic Church-related and non-Church-related — as well as the rights and freedoms of all employees, be protected. Religious freedom must be broad and inclusive, not narrow and exclusive,” Brandt said.

The bishops made their comments nearly a week since HHS announced another revision on coverage for contraception. The regulation is part of President Obama's health care overhaul, known as the Affordable Care Act, and is meant to help space pregnancies and promote women's health.

The department had no reaction to the bishops' criticism, pointing only to an earlier pledge that the government wants to find a solution that would provide the coverage to women while respecting religious concerns.

The administration's initial plan, proposed a year ago, contained a religious exemption that many faith groups, including some who have been supportive of health care reform, said was too narrow.

Dozens of religious groups and for-profit business owners have sued over the regulation, saying it violates their religious rights. Advocates for the broadest coverage argued that employers are trying to impose their religious beliefs on workers. The issue is expected to reach the Supreme Court.

Bridget Fare, a spokeswoman for Duquesne University, had no immediate comment on the statements from the bishops. The Catholic school is one of the institutions that criticized the administration's initial plan.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Michael Hasch is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7820 or mhasch@tribweb.com.

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