Birth control benefit rule riles Minnesota's Catholic bishops

  • Article by: ROSE FRENCH
  • Star Tribune
  • February 1, 2012 - 10:19 PM

Minnesota's Catholic bishops are joining a nationwide protest against a new federal rule requiring faith-based groups to provide birth control and other reproductive services in health care coverage for employees.

In a letter addressed to Catholic parishioners and read by priests at masses this past weekend, Twin Cities Archbishop John Nienstedt writes that the Obama administration "has cast aside the First Amendment to the Constitution ... denying to Catholics our nation's first and most fundamental freedom, that of religious liberty.

"And as a result, unless the rule is overturned, we Catholics will be compelled either to violate our consciences or to drop health coverage for our employees (and suffer the penalties for doing so)."

As part of the federal mandate enacted last month, nearly all employers must cover contraception approved by the Food and Drug Administration, which includes birth control pills, sterilization and "morning after" pills -- all of which the Catholic Church morally opposes.

Houses of worship would be exempted under the new rule, but not organizations such as religious-affiliated hospitals, social service agencies and colleges. These organizations will have one year to comply with the new requirement, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Nationwide, dozens of Catholic bishops and priests voiced their opposition to the federal rule at masses over the weekend. Twin Cities priests were encouraged to read Nienstedt's letter at mass or include it in parish bulletins.

Besides Nienstedt, at least two other Minnesota Catholic bishops have composed similar letters, according to Jason Adkins, executive director for the Minnesota Catholic Conference. "It is very possible others will do one this weekend," Adkins said in an e-mailed statement.

Entering 'the sanctuary'

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops vehemently opposes the mandate and asked bishops and priests to tell their followers to contact elected leaders in Washington and support legislation to reverse the mandate.

"The government has entered the sanctuary," said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the Conference of Catholic Bishops. "The constitution says you can't prohibit the free exercise of religion. Those are religious values we have, related to the life issues. And now the government is saying, 'No, you have to go against your teaching.' You don't want the government running a church. It rankles everybody ... regardless of your feeling of the contraceptive issue."

Catholic hospitals, schools, charities and other faith-based institutions nationwide have voiced opposition to the mandate, and are waiting to see what plays out over the next year.

"The debate about the implementation of health care policies will continue to evolve," according to a released statement from Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, one of the state's largest religious social service organizations. "As we have done for more than a century, Catholic Charities will continue to focus on our mission to serve those most in need, support people in their times of crisis and bring people together to work toward solving poverty."

The Twin Cities' two Catholic universities -- St. Catherine and St. Thomas -- are remaining tight-lipped on the subject for now. Spokespeople for both schools declined to comment because they're still reviewing the new regulation. Students enrolled in colleges' health care plans are also expected to be included as part of the mandate.

Students split on issue

At the University of St. Thomas law school on Wednesday, some students supported the church's argument, while others sided with the government.

Jenifer Culbertson, a second-year law student, said she enrolled in a private insurance plan -- not the one offered by the school -- because the St. Thomas insurance "didn't provide for birth control, which I needed.

"I think so many women need birth control, for various reasons, not just for contraception reasons," said Culbertson. "It should be covered universally. Being able to control the length and distance between pregnancies is a huge health issue, just for women in general. And it improves quality of life. There's other reasons for birth control beyond that, too, and it just seems like an unnecessary restriction."

Health and Human Services officials have made similar arguments for the new mandate, that providing birth control and other reproductive services greatly benefits women's health and reduces health costs.

"This decision was made after very careful consideration, including the important concerns some have raised about religious liberty," said U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in a released statement. "I believe this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventative services."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Rose French • 612-673-4352

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