January 29, 2012

Maine Diocese pushes back on birth control rule

Requiring nonprofits to cover staffers' contraception violates the Constitution, officials say.

By Kelley Bouchard kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Maine is taking a leading role in a national protest against an impending federal rule that will require nonprofit employers with religious affiliations to cover birth control as part of health insurance benefits.

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Bishop Malone

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Bishop Richard Malone and clergy across the state are asking parishioners this weekend to speak out and take action against the requirement -- part of wide-ranging federal health care reforms that became law in 2010 -- as a violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of religious practice.

"With the stroke of a pen, the (Obama) administration has violated our right to act in keeping with our conscience," Malone wrote in a letter to church members. "As a community of faith, we must act on this matter courageously, decisively and promptly."

Exactly what action will be taken remains to be seen.

Marc Mutty, the diocesan public affairs director who led the campaign that defeated a statewide referendum on same-sex marriage in 2009, said he was one of the first to mobilize national opposition to the contraception requirement. He has scheduled a conference call early this week with church leaders across the country to develop a plan to try to overturn the rule, which is part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

"We understand that a lot of people don't see eye to eye with us on the issue of contraception, but that's not really the point," Mutty said. "The Catholic Church would have to violate its tenets to pay for and provide that service."

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced Jan. 20 that nonprofit employers who, based on religious beliefs, currently don't provide contraceptive coverage in their insurance plans will have an additional year, until Aug. 1, 2013, to comply with the law.

While churches are exempt from the law, it applies to thousands of people across Maine, and millions across the country, who work for hospitals, nursing homes, schools, social service organizations and other nonprofits with religious affiliations.

The Maine diocese had no estimate of its cost to provide contraceptive coverage or the number of employees who would qualify; the diocese oversees 15 schools, three hospitals, four nursing homes, two day-care centers and numerous social service programs, including Catholic Charities Maine.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius responded after the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, led by Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, lobbied the Obama administration for full exemption of religious nonprofits. The rule was supposed to take effect Aug. 1 of this year, but Sebelius gave religious nonprofits an additional year to comply.

"This decision was made after very careful consideration, including the important concerns some have raised about religious liberty," Sebelius wrote in a Jan. 20 statement. "I believe the proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services."

LAWMAKERS OFFER SUPPORT

Sebelius and President Obama received strong backing from Democratic lawmakers, who urged the administration to stand its ground against the bishops and others opposed to the law.

"The conscience of an employer or an insurance company should not impede a woman's access to birth control," the lawmakers wrote in a Nov. 18 letter to Obama. "We oppose any efforts to further exempt employers from following the law."

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, signed the letter and lauded the Obama administration last week for refusing to expand the exemption.

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