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Leominster ‘Day for Religious Freedom’

Posted By February 9, 2012 | 5:00 pm | Featured Article #1

Photo by Patricia O’Connell

LEOMINSTER – It was cold and windy on Presidents Day, but that didn’t stop a group of committed pro-life advocates from standing in front of St. Anna in Leominster to protest the recent HHS mandate that would require religious institutions to offer employees insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization and other so-called “preventive care” that can include drugs to end an early pregnancy.

This “Day For Religious Freedom” at St. Anna started with coffee and muffins in the church hall, followed by a prayer service in the church led by Father James Callahan. Later, mothers, fathers and children stood for two hours holding signs in support of the bishops and religious freedom.

The event was organized by the St. Anna pro-life committee.



Congressional hearing on religious liberty

By Carol Zimmermann Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — During a nearly five-hour congressional hearing Feb. 16, religious leaders explained how the contraceptive mandate in the U.S. health reform plan is an affront to their religious liberty rights.

Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., chairman of the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, and two Catholic college presidents were among 10 panelists who addressed the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Panel members included an Orthodox rabbi, a Baptist minister, the president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and officials from Christian universities.

The hearing took place nearly a week after President Barack Obama revised a federal contraceptive mandate, saying religious employers could decline to cover contraceptives and sterilization if they were morally opposed to them, but the health insurers that provide their health plans would be required to offer contraceptives free of charge to women who requested such coverage.

The revision came after three weeks of intensive criticism that Department of Health and Human Services’ contraception mandate would require most religious institutions to pay for coverage they find morally objectionable, despite a limited religious exemption.

The religious leaders at the hearing said the change still violated their religious freedoms because it involved the government requiring their participation, even indirectly, in practices they disagreed with on moral grounds.

Democrats at the hearing were highly critical of the lack of female panelists and two of them walked out after expressing concern that women were not able to discuss the importance of free access to contraception. There were no women on the first panel and two on the second. None of the witnesses spoke in favor of the contraceptive mandate in the health reform law.

U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., committee chairman, reminded lawmakers that the hearing was not about contraception but about the law’s impact on freedom of religion and conscience. The hearing was titled: “Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?”

He also pointed out that the Democratic members’ request for the female witness — a Georgetown University law student — had been submitted too late to be considered and was “not an appropriate witness.” The committee accepted the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, as a panelist. Although he did not speak on the panel, he submitted his testimony for the record.

Testimony the law student, Sandra Fluke, would have given was read at the end of the hearing by Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa. In it, she described how a fellow student suffered severe health issues which she said could have been prevented if the university had given her access to the birth control pill.

Braley said her remarks, submitted for the record, reveal “the complexity of this issue.”

But throughout the at-times-contentious hearing religious leaders spoke at length about the complexity of the issue particularly when lawmakers grilled panelists on the law’s impact on their faith traditions.

Bishop Lori compared the contraceptive mandate to a law that would force all food providers, including kosher delicatessens, to serve pork.

The bishop asked if it would be permissible for the government to weigh in on one side of this hypothetical dispute.

He was asked more than once if the Catholic Church, which is morally opposed to artificial birth control, would ever consider the use of contraceptives for health reasons.

“Catholic moral theology is very nuanced” in its ability to see how the same drug can be used for different things, he said. “We operate with lot more nuance than we’re usually given credit for.”

The bulk of the discussion was religious leaders being asked by Republican lawmakers if they would comply with the new law and violate their consciences or refuse to comply with the mandate and pay steep fines or even close some of their ministries.

“We will not violate our consciences,” said Bishop Lori, who noted that the issue is about “forcing the church” to provide contraceptives against church teachings. “That’s what we don’t want to do. It’s one thing when tax dollars pay for it. It’s another when church dollars do.”

John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America, said there would be a fine of almost $2,000 per employee per year if the university doesn’t provide health insurance. “We’re not an institution rich enough to afford that penalty, so I’m trying to not look that far down the road,” he said.

“We will not violate our faith,” said William Thierfelder, president of Belmont Abbey College, a small Catholic liberal arts college in Belmont, N.C. The college has filed a civil lawsuit against the federal government on the grounds the contraception mandate is contrary to its beliefs.

Thierfelder told lawmakers that he hoped the school would “never come to the extreme of having to pay a huge fine or closing.”

“I’m confident we won’t come to that,” he said, adding that the congressional hearing could prompt further discussion on the issue along with the realization that “we need to do something about this.”

Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., acknowledged the strong feelings about the issue and accused both sides of distorting the facts.

“I’m disappointed in some who suggest that the Catholic bishops’ stance represents something sinister, that it is an attempt to deny all women, of any faith, access to any contraception or reproductive health care of any kind. I don’t think that’s the case,” he said.

“I’m also disappointed in those who claim that the administration has an agenda: to increase abortions, sterilizations and contraceptive use by Catholics. The facts don’t back that up, not in the slightest,” he added.

The day before the hearing a group of Catholic leaders held a telephone press conference described as a “pre-buttal” to the congressional hearing.

Some speakers said they opposed the original federal health mandate but felt its revised form was an acceptable compromise.

Mercy Sister Anne Curtis, a member of the Institute Leadership Team of the Sister of Mercy of the Americas, said she felt there was “a lot of good will in the effort to resolve this” and hopes dialogue about it will continue so that ultimately good health care can be provided for those “most vulnerable and fragile in our society.”

Nicholas Cafardi, a law professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, said the bishops had “prevailed” with the mandate being revised.

Cafardi also said he believes “everything my church teaches,” but doesn’t see the mandate as “a question of dogma,” but rather as an “issue of how we apply dogma in the real world.”

At the hearing, the Rev. Matthew Harrison, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, said he would rather go to jail than comply with the revised mandate, which he said still requires religious institutions to pay indirectly for services that violate their religious beliefs.

“I will give up my sons to fight” for these liberties, he said. “I will give up every single thing I have.”


PHOTO: Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., chairman of the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, the Rev. Matthew Harrison, Ben Mitchell, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik and Craig Mitchell are sworn in before testifying at a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington Feb. 16. The hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee was on religious liberty, prompted by debate over a federal mandate on contraceptive coverage.(CNS photo/Bob Roller)


Bishops express disapproval

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) –Catholic bishops across the country have expressed their disapproval of President Barack Obama’s newly announced revision to the contraceptive mandate in the health reform law, saying it does nothing to change what they and other religious leaders and organizations consider an intrusion on religious liberty.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced Jan. 20 that religious organizations could delay but not opt out of the requirement that all health plans cover contraceptives and sterilization free of charge.
On Feb. 10, Obama announced a revision that allows religious employers not to offer such services to their employees but would compel insurance companies to do so. The change came after three weeks of intensive criticism that the contraception mandate would require most religious institutions to pay for coverage they find morally objectionable.
And now questions have been raised over how that revision will pertain to self-insured parties, like many dioceses and Catholic organizations, and whether it could still force entities morally opposed to contraception to pay for such services.
“We can appreciate the efforts of the White House to quiet the furor over the president’s HHS mandate that would violate the religious freedom of millions of Catholics and other American citizens,” Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski said in a Feb. 10 statement.
He noted that hundreds of Catholic universities, colleges, hospitals and other entities offered comments to HHS before the mandate was announced but they “were given short shrift by the administration.”
“The administration continues to insist that the issue is about contraception; we disagree. It is about the first freedom of our Bill of Rights: the freedom of religion and respect for the rights of conscience,” he added.
Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez said he found the president’s revision “troubling and frustrating.”
“Unfortunately, he did not really respond to the deep moral concerns raised by America’s Catholic community,” he said in a Feb. 13 statement.
The archbishop said the fact the revision requires payment of contraceptive coverage to now be borne by insurance companies, rather than religious employers, “completely misses the point. The issue here is not one of bookkeeping or accounting. It is a matter of moral principle and religious liberty,” he said.
He also said the government has “no right to require the Catholic Church or other institutions to pay for –even indirectly –products and services that we find to be immoral and unconscionable. Again, this is not a question of contraception. It is a question of religious liberty. This mandate continues to represent a grave government intrusion on Catholic consciences and on the freedom of our Catholic institutions.”
Washington Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl similarly noted that the federal mandate “remains essentially unchanged” and criticized the president’s “fix.”
“Regardless of how it is characterized, shifting the cost of these drugs and procedures to insurance companies does not make their requirement any less objectionable or lessen the infringement on our religious liberty and rights of conscience,” Cardinal Wuerl wrote in a Feb. 13 e-letter sent to Catholics of the Archdiocese of Washington.
The cardinal said the “only complete solution to the problem that this mandate poses” would be for Congress to pass the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act introduced by U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb.
Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan of New York told Catholic News Service Feb. 13 in Rome that Fortenberry’s bill would produce an “ironclad law simply saying that no administrative decrees of the federal government can ever violate the conscience of a religious believer individually or religious institutions.”
“It’s a shame, you’d think that’s so clear in the Constitution that that wouldn’t have to be legislatively guaranteed, but we now know that it’s not,” he added.
The cardinal-designate said with his revision to the HHS mandate, the president offered “next to nothing.”
“There’s no change, for instance, in these terribly restrictive mandates and this grossly restrictive definition of what constitutes a religious entity,” he said. “The principle wasn’t touched at all.”
Other U.S. church leaders in Rome on a periodic “ad limina” visit to the Vatican echoed that opposition to the HHS mandate and the revision.
Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago said he was disappointed the issue is being perceived as something that isolates the bishops from the faithful. “To try to divide Catholics is a new challenge to religious liberty,” he said.
Bishop Daniel R. Jenky of Peoria, Ill., said no president has ever “tried to tell us what to believe or define what is our ministry.” The notion the church “must cooperate with intrinsic evil is appalling,” he said.
Cardinal Wuerl encouraged Catholics not to become complacent or distracted by “incomplete proposals presented as definitive solutions.” He said the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, chaired by Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., would be working on action steps to oppose the mandate.
In a Feb. 13 phone interview with CNS, Bishop Lori also called for a legislative remedy, saying, “Our religious freedom is too precious to be protected only by regulations. It needs legislative protection.”
An Obama administration official who asked not to be named told CNS in an email Feb. 13 that the White House plans in the coming weeks to convene “a series of meetings with faith community leaders” about the HHS mandate. He said a particular focus of the meetings would be self-insured group health plans that cover the employees of many Catholic dioceses and institutions.
“The administration will work with faith-based organizations, insurers and other interested parties to develop policies that respect religious liberty and ensure access to preventive services for women enrolled in self-insured group health plans sponsored by religious organizations,” he said.
The official said the meetings would be convened “in the coming days” and that “the bishops and others” would be invited.
Meanwhile, Bishop Blase J. Cupich of Spokane, Wash., said the current situation about the HHS mandate provides an opportunity “to have a deeper and, on a prolonged basis, a fundamental dialogue about the role of religion in society in general and the nature of religious liberty, especially as it applies to faith-based charitable, health and social service ministries in the United States.”
Writing in the March 5 issue of America magazine, a Jesuit-run national weekly, Bishop Cupich quoted from Obama’s biography, “Dreams From My Father,” and his 2008 campaign speech on racism to show that “the president, relying on his personal experience with church, … has not only the potential but also the responsibility to make a significant contribution to this more sustained and expansive discussion.”
The bishop offered points of “common ground that may shape both the dialogue that needs to take place to unpack the details following the president’s announcement Friday, and the further national discussion on the role of religion in society.”
He said the church “should make every attempt to clarify the misrepresentations about its intention,” emphasizing that it “is not trying to impose its will on others” by objecting to being forced to participate in activities that violate its core religious beliefs.
The state, for its part, should be reluctant “to make national policy that is so inflexible that it fails to take into account the country’s diversity,” Bishop Cupich said.
– – –
Contributing to this story were Nancy Frazier O’Brien, Dennis Sadowski and Mark Zimmermann in Washington and Francis X. Rocca in Rome.

PHOTO U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement at the White House in Washington Feb. 10 about the federal mandate on contraceptive coverage. Standing next to Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, Obama outlined a plan that would allow religious employers not to offer such services to their employees but would compel insurance companies to do so. (CNS photo/Larry Downing, Reuters)

Continue urging passage of Respect for Rights of Conscience Act

WASHINGTON – The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) have issued the following statement:

The Catholic bishops have long supported access to life-affirming healthcare for all, and the conscience rights of everyone involved in the complex process of providing that healthcare. That is why we raised two serious objections to the “preventive services” regulation issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in August 2011.

First, we objected to the rule forcing private health plans — nationwide, by the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen—to cover sterilization and contraception, including drugs that may cause abortion. All the other mandated “preventive services” prevent disease, and pregnancy is not a disease. Moreover, forcing plans to cover abortifacients violates existing federal conscience laws. Therefore, we called for the rescission of the mandate altogether.

Second, we explained that the mandate would impose a burden of unprecedented reach and severity on the consciences of those who consider such “services” immoral: insurers forced to write policies including this coverage; employers and schools forced to sponsor and subsidize the coverage; and individual employees and students forced to pay premiums for the coverage. We therefore urged HHS, if it insisted on keeping the mandate, to provide a conscience exemption for all of these stakeholders—not just the extremely small subset of “religious employers” that HHS proposed to exempt initially.

Today, the President has done two things.

First, he has decided to retain HHS’s nationwide mandate of insurance coverage of sterilization and contraception, including some abortifacients. This is both unsupported in the law and remains a grave moral concern. We cannot fail to reiterate this, even as so many would focus exclusively on the question of religious liberty.

Second, the President has announced some changes in how that mandate will be administered, which is still unclear in its details. As far as we can tell at this point, the change appears to have the following basic contours:

·It would still mandate that all insurers must include coverage for the objectionable services in all the policies they would write. At this point, it would appear that self-insuring religious employers, and religious insurance companies, are not exempt from this mandate.

·It would allow non-profit, religious employers to declare that they do not offer such coverage. But the employee and insurer may separately agree to add that coverage. The employee would not have to pay any additional amount to obtain this coverage, and the coverage would be provided as a part of the employer’s policy, not as a separate rider.

·Finally, we are told that the one-year extension on the effective date (from August 1, 2012 to August 1, 2013) is available to any non-profit religious employer who desires it, without any government application or approval process.

These changes require careful moral analysis, and moreover, appear subject to some measure of change. But 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. And in the case where the employee and insurer agree to add the objectionable coverage, that coverage is still provided as a part of the objecting employer’s plan, financed in the same way as the rest of the coverage offered by the objecting employer. This, too, raises serious moral concerns.

We just received information about this proposal for the first time this morning; we were not consulted in advance. Some information we have is in writing and some is oral. We will, of course, continue to press for the greatest conscience protection we can secure from the Executive Branch. But stepping away from the particulars, 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.

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.


Obama compromise on contraceptive mandate gets mixed reviews

By Nancy Frazier O’Brien
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — In an move that appears unlikely to end the controversy over a federal mandate that all health insurance plans include contraception and sterilization free of charge, President Barack Obama outlined a plan that would allow religious employers not to offer such services to their employees but would compel insurance companies to do so.

The president announced the policy in a brief statement Feb. 10 but took no questions.

“No women’s health should depend on who she is, who she works for or how much money she makes,” Obama said. He said the new policy remains faithful to the “core principle” of free preventive care, but also honors the principle of religious freedom, which “as a Christian, I cherish.”

Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called the announcement “a first step in the right direction,” but said “we reserve judgment on the details until we have them.”

“We hope to work with the administration to guarantee that Americans’ consciences and our religious freedom are not harmed by these regulations,” he added.

The USCCB president said Americans of all faiths and of no faith had responded with “remarkable unity” against the mandate by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services because they were “worried about the erosion of religious freedom and governmental intrusion into issues of faith and morals.”

Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity who is president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, praised what she called “a resolution … 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,” she said in a statement. “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.”

But U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., a Catholic who has co-chaired the bipartisan Congressional Pro-Life Caucus since 1982, said the policy announced by Obama “is the discredited old policy, dressed up to look like something else.”

He said the requirement that insurance companies provide contraception and sterilization free of charge to all employees of religious organizations would still place the cost ultimately on the religious employers. “Who pays for the insurance policy?” he asked. “The religious employer.”

Obama said he had spoken to Catholic officials directly “from the very beginning of this process” and had promised them that “we would spend the next year working with institutions like Catholic hospitals and Catholic universities to find an equitable solution that protects religious liberty and ensures that every woman has access to the care that she needs.”

He said the policy announced Jan. 20 had prompted “many genuine concerns, … as well as, frankly, the more cynical desire on the part of some to make this into a political football.” Because of that, Obama said, he directed HHS “to speed up the process that had already been envisioned.”

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the final rule was to be published in the Federal Register later Feb. 10.


EWTN files lawsuit against HHS mnadate


IRONDALE, AL – EWTN Global Catholic Network filed  a lawsuit February 9 in U.S. District Court in Birmingham, Alabama against the Department of Health & Human Services, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and other government agencies seeking to stop the imposition of the contraception mandate as well as asking the court for a declaratory judgment that the mandate is unconstitutional, according to a press release from the network. EWTN is the first Catholic organization to file suit since the final HHS rules were published by the Obama administration on January 20.

“We had no other option but to take this to the courts,” says EWTN President and CEO Michael P. Warsaw. “Under the HHS mandate, EWTN is being forced by the government to make a choice: either we provide employees coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs and violate our conscience or offer our employees and their families no health insurance coverage at all. Neither of those choices is acceptable.”

The lawsuit was filed on EWTN’s behalf by Mark Rienzi, Kyle Duncan, and Erik Kniffin from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

“We are taking this action to defend not only ourselves but also to protect other institutions – Catholic and non-Catholic, religious and secular – from having this mandate imposed upon them,” Warsaw continued. “The government is forcing EWTN, first, to inform its employees about how to get contraception, sterilization and abortifacient drugs, a concept known as forced speech. To make the matter worse, the government then will force EWTN to use its donors’ funds to pay for these same morally objectionable procedures or to pay for the huge fines it will levy against us if we fail to provide health care insurance. There is no question that this mandate violates our First Amendment rights. This is a moment when EWTN, as a Catholic organization, has to step up and say that enough is enough. Our hope is that our lawsuit does just that.”

The Becket Fund previously filed similar lawsuits on behalf of Belmont Abbey College, a small Catholic liberal arts college in Belmont, N.C., and Colorado Christian University, an interdenominational Christian liberal arts university near Denver, which demonstrates that this is not just a Catholic issue. Both suits were filed prior to the HHS rules being finalized in January.

“When the government recently mandated that all private group health plans cover certain abortion drugs (namely, Plan B and ella), as well as related education and counseling, [our clients] knew that they could not obey both the government’s mandate and their own religious convictions,” said Rienzi, who focuses his practice at the Becket Fund on violations of the Fourteenth Amendment, free speech, and the free exercise of religion. “The mandate has been sharply criticized from across the political spectrum, and from religious leaders of a variety of faiths.”

Duncan, a former Louisiana Solicitor General and General Counsel of the Becket Fund, said that without a change in the rules, EWTN could be forced to pay more than $600,000 for the “privilege” of not underwriting these services.

“This mandate is particularly hard on Catholics because Catholic organizations, such as hospitals, schools, social service agencies, media outlets and others, serve people regardless of their religious beliefs,” Warsaw said. “We serve others not because they are Catholic, but because we are Catholic.”


USCCB president says he is skeptical Obama wants compromise on HHS regs

By Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) — Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan of New York said he is “a little skeptical” that the Obama administration wants to find a compromise on the requirement that health plans for most religious employers cover contraceptives and sterilization free of charge.
In an interview Feb. 9 with “CBS This Morning,” the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said he expressed his “disappointment and disapproval” when President Barack Obama called him Jan. 20 to notify him that the Department of Health and Human Services was sticking by the contraceptive mandate announced last year but giving religious groups an additional year to comply.
That decision, he said, was “at odds with the very sincere assurances he gave me” during a White House meeting in early November that the religious freedom and conscience rights of those who are morally opposed to contraception and sterilization would be protected.
Cardinal-designate Dolan said he felt hopeful after the November meeting, but added, “I don’t have those sentiments of hope now.”
The Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate includes a religious exemption, but leaders of various Catholic and other faith-based organizations say it is too narrow and they will still be forced to provide coverage they oppose.
Cardinal-designate Dolan called the decision to require contraceptive coverage by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who is Catholic, a “terribly misguided judgment” but said it had prompted “a massive negative reaction” not only among Catholics but among those who value religious freedom.
“We bishops are fighters,” he said, adding that “this wasn’t a fight of our choosing.”
The cardinal-designate spoke shortly after both White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod hinted that Obama would be open to a compromise.
“The president is very interested in finding the appropriate balance between religious beliefs and convictions — and he takes those very seriously — and his commitment to making sure that women of all faiths have access to these important health care preventive services,” Carney said Feb. 7.
“We certainly don’t want to abridge anyone’s religious freedoms, so we are going to look for a way to move forward that both provides women with the preventive care that they need and respects the prerogatives of religious institutions,” Axelrod said the same day.

PHOTO: Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan of New York discusses the new birth control mandate on “CBS This Morning”  Feb. 9. Cardinal-designate Dolan said he expressed his “disappointment and disapproval” when President Barack Obama called him Jan. 20 to notify him that the Department of Health and Human Services was sticking by the contraceptive mandate announced last year but giving religious groups an additional year to comply. (CNS photo/Jeff Neira, CBS)