Catholic News Service photo
Jim Towey, president of Ave Maria University in Florida, filed suit against the Obama administration for its health care mandate.
Catholic News Service photo
Jim Towey, president of Ave Maria University in Florida, filed suit against the Obama administration for its health care mandate.
In an online column published last week, Portland Archbishop John Vlazny called on Catholics to speak out against a controversial federal health mandate. The Health and Human Services requirement for employee medical coverage, the archbishop said, is an affront to religious liberty.  

"My friends, this is not the moment to sit on the sidelines and watch," the archbishop wrote about the mandate, which guarantees workers free coverage for sterilization and birth control, including abortifacient drugs. "This is a time to get involved. Let’s make sure that government leaders remember that ours is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. Let’s move together front and center in defense of religious liberty."

Archbishop Vlazny suggested that Catholics and others troubled by the mandate mobilize with the same degree of fervor shown by abortion rights advocates who last month overturned a Susan G. Komen Foundation policy. After the Komen Foundation announced it would no longer fund Planned Parenthood, pro-choice groups reacted so strongly that the breast cancer research funder reversed course and reinstated grants for the abortion provider.

The HHS mandate at first would have required employers to provide workers directly with the controversial coverage. An exception was provided for a small number of religious employers — like typical parishes — who hire and serve people mostly of their own faith. Catholic universities, hospitals and charitable organizations would have been forced to include the coverage as part of their worker health packages.

After strong objections arose, President Obama proposed a compromise in which insurance agencies would give the coverage to workers at no charge. But critics called the accommodation a smoke screen, saying the insurers would pass the cost on to employers in the form of higher rates. In addition, many church organizations would need to abide by the mandate because they self-insure.

"We have been made second class citizens and it is imperative that we regain our religious freedom," Archbishop Vlazny wrote.

Catholic Charities of Oregon issued a statement last week saying it stands in solidarity with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Charities USA to uphold religious liberty.

Since 1973, federal law has said that no individual is required to take part in “any part of a health service program or research activity funded in whole or in part under a program administered by the Secretary of Health and Human Services if it is ‘contrary to his religious beliefs or moral convictions.’”

A 2007 Oregon law did require businesses who offer prescription coverage to include contraception as part of plans, a provision large Catholic-affiliated employers in the state have been struggling with ever since. Several other states have similar laws.

In testimony to Congress, Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn. said the mandate is akin to ordering that a kosher deli serve pork. Bishop Lori chairs the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Some federal lawmakers are demanding legislation to stop the mandate and sustain religious liberty. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., chided President Obama, calling the compromise a word game.

"It hasn’t changed anything because it still requires employers to offer insurance with these controversial services – even self-insured organizations like many religious hospitals and universities," Vitter said. "It may be good enough for President Obama’s conscience, but not for the millions of Americans who cherish their religious liberty.”

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., calls the Obama accommodation an “accounting gimmick.”  “This is not about cost. It’s about the Constitution,” Blunt said. “And if you can decide this no longer offends me because I don’t have to pay for it, I guess you’re concern is financial all the time and not faith-based.”

Florida's Ave Maria University last week filed suit in response to the mandate.
“Allowing a U.S. president of any political party or religious affiliation to force conformance to his or her religious or secular orthodoxy through executive action, is a perilous precedent,” said Jim Towey, Ave Maria’s president and former head of the Bush Administration’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

Opposition to the law has also emerged from the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church, which self-insures 50,000 workers, and dozens of other religious groups.  
Backers of conscience rights won a victory in Washington state last week. A federal court struck down a state law that requires pharmacists to dispense the morning-after pill even when doing so would violate their religious beliefs. The court held that the law violates the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.