WASHINGTON-The Catholic Health Association, a prominent religious ally to President Obama in passing his healthcare law, changed its position on the administration's contraceptive mandate Friday, saying the exemption for religious organizations was not adequate. In a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services, the group said the mandate raised "serious constitutional questions" and would not address "religious liberty concerns."
"The exemption in the final rule is narrower than any conscience clause ever enacted in federal law and reflects an unacceptable change in federal policy regarding religious beliefs," the Catholic Health Association (CHA) wrote.
The turnaround is a blow to the Obama administration because it had touted the association's support of the proposed amendments to the contraceptive mandate. CHA's support made the administration look like it was offering a reasonable compromise and like the Catholic bishops couldn't take "yes" for an answer. The association represents the country's largest group of Catholic hospitals and health organizations, representing about 750,000 employees.
In the letter Friday, CHA urged the administration to "abandon the narrow definition of 'religious employer'" and instead use an expanded definition to exempt from the contraceptive mandate not only churches, but also Catholic hospitals and "other ministries of the church."
As the contraceptive mandate stands, only churches and seminaries count as religious organizations that can be exempt. In the uproar over the mandate in February, President Obama announced a proposal to try to alleviate religious groups' concerns: that insurance companies would provide contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilization to religious employees for free. Health and Human Services (HHS) detailed the proposals in an "Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" memo, but so far has not fleshed out details like how the contraceptives would be paid for.
The Catholic bishops and many other religious organizations scoffed at the proposal at the time, but CHA applauded it, saying it "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." The White House forwarded CHA's statement of support to reporters.
The letter that CHA submitted to HHS Friday said that the association was less convinced about supporting the mandate as it studied the proposals more closely, saying they would be "unduly cumbersome" for religious employers.
By exempting only churches, the letter said, "the government essentially parses a bona fide religious organization into secular and religious components solely to impose burdens on the secular portion. To make this distinction is to create a false dichotomy between the Catholic Church and the ministries through which the church lives out the teachings of Jesus Christ."
Sister Carol Keehan, who leads CHA, has met with White House officials, including the president, at least five times since the administration announced the mandate, according to the latest White House visitor log records.
CHA submitted the letter on its position to HHS as part of the comments on the proposed amendments to the mandate-HHS is accepting such comments until June 19. Earlier Friday, Planned Parenthood sent a blast email to supporters asking them to submit comments to HHS supporting the rule, with the subject line "It's not yet over for birth control."
"Our opponents will do anything they can to limit access to birth control coverage, and you better believe they are making their voices heard," wrote Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood.
One ally of the administration now falls under the category of "opponent."