WASHINGTON (CNS) — Catholic institutions were still analyzing the effect of a new set of proposed rules on insurance coverage of contraceptives issued by the Department of Health and Human Services.
The 80-page document released Feb. 1 by HHS attempts to address objections that the previous rules would force religious employers to stop providing employee health insurance because the federal requirement to include contraceptive coverage violates their religious beliefs.
Four days after the proposed rules were released, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Health Association were still studying the details of the proposal before rendering opinions on the changes. The thousands of dioceses, parishes, charities and medical organizations that look to the USCCB and the CHA for guidance were biding their time as well.
A statement Feb. 1 from Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, president of the USCCB, said the bishops "welcome the opportunity to study the proposed regulations closely. We look forward to issuing a more detailed statement later."
Mercy Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the USCCB, told CNS Feb. 5 that "we need a thorough understanding" of the proposed changes before a position is announced.
The CHA likewise issued a statement saying it would provide an analysis once the regulations were evaluated.
Some entities were quick to issue opinions on the rules, which are open for a 60-day comment period. The rules are expected to be finalized this summer.
Critics of the proposed rules included the Becket Fund, a nonprofit, public interest law firm that represents several nonprofit and for-profit organizations in their lawsuits against the federal government, which challenge the requirement of the Affordable Care Act.
"Today's proposed rule does nothing to protect the religious freedom of millions of Americans," said a Feb. 1 statement from Kyle Duncan, Becket Fund general counsel. "For instance, it does nothing to protect the rights of family businesses like Hobby Lobby."
Hobby Lobby is a craft retailer owned by a Christian family. The owners object to being required to provide insurance that covers drugs that some consider to be abortifacients. The company has sued over the requirement. Its request for an injunction to protect it from providing the coverage while the legal challenge works through the courts was rejected Dec. 26 by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who covers the federal court circuit handling the case.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia in a Feb. 4 column posted on the archdiocesan website called it an "ambiguous compromise."
"The White House has made no concessions to the religious conscience claims of private businesses, and the whole spirit of the 'compromise' is minimalist," he said.
"One of the issues America's bishops now face is how best to respond to an HHS mandate that remains unnecessary, coercive and gravely flawed. In the weeks ahead the bishops of our country, myself included, will need both prudence and courage -- the kind of courage that gives prudence spine and results in right action, whatever the cost," Archbishop Chaput said.
The Becket Fund also represents the Eternal Word Television Network and several religiously run institutions of higher education including Ave Maria University, Belmont Abbey College, Colorado Christian University, East Texas Baptist University, Houston Baptist University and Wheaton College.
The new proposals specifically said no nonprofit religious institution — including churches, universities, hospitals and charities — will have to "arrange, contract, pay for or refer for" contraception insurance for employees or students who want it.
But Duncan's statement said the new proposal "does not meaningfully expand the 'church-only' exemption — which is the real relief that our clients are entitled to under our Constitution."
Michael P. Warsaw, CEO of EWTN, also issued a Feb. 1 statement saying that the network's initial conclusions about the rules "are not promising."
He said it did not appear EWTN would qualify for the exemption, and the proposed process for self-insured entities "simply kicks this can farther down the road."
"We will continue to study this notice with our attorneys, but are highly doubtful it will provide EWTN with any relief from this immoral mandate," he said. "EWTN remains firmly committed to pressing forward with our case in the federal courts and will take all steps necessary to challenge this unjust mandate."
Others said the new rules seem to accommodate the problems that led Catholic dioceses, universities and other organizations to sue over the previous proposed rules.
Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a harsh critic of the previous rules, said in a Feb. 1 statement that the new rules "appear to go a long way toward rectifying the most problematic provisions of the mandate. Essentially, the rules provide insularity for Catholic institutions: They will not be directly involved in providing health insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs."
He said many aspects of the new proposal need to be evaluated, but that the expansion of religious exemptions and the shift to using the Internal Revenue Code definition of eligible organizations "is a sign of good will by the Obama administration toward the Catholic community."
He said the issue of private employers who raise a religious objection to providing contraceptive insurance is unresolved, but, "because the new rules have not been finalized, and there is an opportunity for further public discussion, more progress may yet be made."
Jesuit Father Tom Reese, director of the Religion and Public Policy program at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center, told Catholic News Service that the new version of the rules fixed "the four-part definition of religious employer by eliminating the confusing first three parts and relied on the traditional definition of churches in the Internal Revenue Code. They also have found creative ways to provide contraceptives to the employees of religious colleges and hospitals without the involvement of these institutions."
The revised rules say that employees of institutions that have been exempted from providing contraceptive coverage may receive coverage under separate policies provided by insurance companies. The rules say employers would have no role in paying for or administering the policies.