Archbishop William Lori
Archbishop William Lori
WASHINGTON — The chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty has urged the House of Representatives to extend long-standing federal conscience protections to the Affordable Care Act’s new coverage mandates for private health plans. Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore made the request in a letter to members of the House.

Saying the tradition of conscience rights in health care “has long enjoyed bipartisan consensus, but is now under greatly increased pressure,” Archbishop Lori asked to attach the conscience provision to upcoming appropriation bills for the departments of Labor and Health and Human Services.

“While the mandate for coverage of abortion-causing drugs, contraceptives and sterilization is hailed by some as a victory for women’s freedom, it permits no free choice by a female employee to decline such coverage for herself or her minor children, even if it violates her moral and religious convictions,” he added.

He also asked for a protection in current appropriations talks that clarifies current nondiscrimination laws to improve protection of individuals and institutions that decline involvement in abortion, allowing the victims of discrimination to vindicate their rights in court.

Archbishop Lori also noted that in the new proposed rules issued by HHS Feb. 1 on the contraceptive mandate, the administration’s definition of an exempt “religious employer” is briefer than its original four-part definition, “but the administration itself says it does not ‘expand the universe’ of those who are exempt.”

He noted that under the new proposal, insurers, individuals and families, nonprofit or for-profit organizations that are not explicitly religious, and third-party administrators who object to the contraceptive mandate on moral grounds will have it “imposed on them without any recourse.”

The Catholic Health Association and two more bishops have joined other Catholic leaders and institutions in weighing in on new proposed rules governing the contraceptive mandate from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The Catholic Health Association said the changes “are substantial progress” but it will continue to study them and work with its member hospitals, the leadership of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Obama administration “to complete this process.”

Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, said he was pleased HHS removed three of the four criteria for defining religious organizations and for providing “an alternative pathway of accommodation,” which could provide religious organizations with the ability to “fully exercise their moral objections to providing contraceptives, sterilizations and abortifacients, while not breaking the law.”

Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla., said i the Obama administration has been “desirous of listening to and accommodating the concerns of Catholics” referring in particular to the changes in how religious organizations are defined.