Keefe and Bishop denounce HHS rules

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Christian Howard & Clare Myers
Managing Editor & Contributing Writer

When the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced in January that it would give most employers more time to provide health care coverage that includes “preventative services for women,” the HHS instigated a backlash from the Catholic Church and other religious institutions because these institutions would be required to cover birth control in employee health plans.

According to the announcement, “nonprofit employers who, based on religious beliefs, do not currently provide contraceptive coverage in their insurance plan” will have until Aug. 1, 2013 to comply with the mandate.

The HHS last August defined a religious employer as one that, among a variety of categories, has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose; primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets; primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets; and is a non-profit organization under multiple sections of the code. It also referred to churches, their integrated auxiliaries, and conventions or associations of churches, as well as to the exclusively religious activities of any religious order.

The University of Dallas does not qualify as a “religious employer,” according the above definition.

To qualify for exemption under the definition of religious employer, UD would need to become a seminary, without a school of business, a liberal arts college or graduate programs. Other religious establishments, such as Catholic hospitals and Catholic schools, also do not qualify as “religious institutions” as defined by the government. They are likewise not permitted the right of conscience to object to the regulations.

After HHS first announced the broad requirements of the new rule last August, UD President Thomas Keefe wrote a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebellus, stating,  “Requiring the members of an institution to pay for health care which is contradictory to their religious and moral principles is an infringement upon the right to religious freedom.”

In his letter to Sebellus, Keefe said the government’s move to set limits on what can be considered a religious establishment calls into question the nature of the “free exercise” clause of the First Amendment and the relationship between church and state.

The decision announced in January leaves in place an exemption to the contraceptive coverage requirement – part of a rule issued under the health reform law – that only exempts religious employers like churches, but not ones like religiously affiliated hospitals or schools.

The only change the administration made was to give these other organizations an additional year to come into compliance with the mandate, which requires all health plans to cover FDA-approved contraceptives.

“This is truly a matter of moral conscience,” Keefe said. “It really is a question of religious freedom.”

The new rules have met with much opposition, prompting public challenges from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and prominent religious leaders such as Diocese of Dallas Bishop Kevin Farrell.

Farrell explained the consequences of the HHS mandate in a letter to the Diocese on Jan. 26. “This action by the administration denies us as Catholics our nation’s first and most fundamental freedom, that of religious liberty,” Farrell wrote. “Unless this rule is overturned, we must be prepared either to violate our consciences, or to drop health coverage for our employees (and suffer the penalties for doing so).”

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit law firm based in Washington, filed suit against the Obama Administration shortly after the mandate was first issued last August. UD is considering similar action.

“We haven’t rejected the option of filing suit against the Department of Health and Human Services, asking that the federal court issue a temporary injunction that will prohibit the department of Health and Human Services from applying their new regulations against the University of Dallas and like institutions,” Keefe said.

He added that UD would first coordinate with the USCCB and the American Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. “We fully intend to comport to the teachings of the Catholic Church,” he said.

This issue is “of paramount importance” to UD, Keefe said, because it would require the university “to participate in a violation of the Catholic Church’s moral and social teaching.”

He said UD and other religious employers in opposition to the new regulations have a strong argument.

“Our constitutional grounds are very solid,” he said.

If the rules stand, Keefe asked, “Is every Catholic institution going to have to shut down or abandon its Catholic identity?”

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