Bishops ask for delay in contraception coverage mandate

MGN Online
Tuesday, December 31, 2013 - 8:30pm

The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, sent a letter to President Obama asking that some business with strong religious views be exempted from fines related to the new health care law until the Supreme Court rules on legal challenges over contraception coverage.

The Supreme Court last month agreed to review provisions in the Affordable Care Act requiring employers of a certain size to offer insurance coverage for birth control and other reproductive health services without a co-pay.

Employers, including those with moral and religious objections, will have to comply with the Affordable Care Act provision starting January 1 or else face hefty financial penalties.

Kurtz pointed to other delays the administration has made in the Affordable Health Care Act, such the yearlong delay of the requirement for all employers with more than 50 workers to provide health insurance coverage. The requirement, originally set to start in 2014, was postponed until 2015.

But, Kurtz notes, "an employer who chooses, out of charity and good will, to provide" health insurance for employees can still face fines if that employer does not want to comply with the contraception requirement.

"In effect, the government seems to be telling employees that they are better off with no employer health plan at all than with a plan that does not cover contraceptives," he writes.

While houses of worship themselves are exempted from the contraception mandate in the ACA, other religious-affiliated groups like church-run hospitals and parochial schools are not, which has been a major sticking point with the bishop's conference and other religious groups. Dozens of religious groups have filed suit against the administration including everyone from the University of Notre Dame to a small Mennonite cabinet making company.

Under final federal rules issued in June---negotiated between the Obama administration and a variety of outside groups---non-profit religious employers like hospitals and schools must either provide no-cost contraception coverage, or have a third-party insurer provide separate benefits, without the employer's direct involvement.

The letter represents a major first act by Kurtz, who was elected president of the bishops' conference in November, succeeding Archbishop of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan.

The Supreme Court agreed last month to hear two cases involving for-profit corporation who say their religious liberty is violated by the law. Among the plaintiffs is Hobby Lobby, Inc. nationwide chain of about 500 arts and crafts stores.

At issue is whether private companies can refuse to do so on the claim it violates their religious beliefs.

The privately held company does not object to funding all forms of contraception - such as condoms and diaphragms - for their roughly 13,000 employees, which Hobby Lobby says represent a variety of faiths.

The Green family, which owns Hobby Lobby, said in court filings they object to contraceptives like the morning after pill, which they would say constitutes abortion and violates their faith.

Hobby Lobby calculated that their refusal to provide the coverage could result in a fine of up to $1.3 million daily.

The White House said in November that it believes a requirement on contraceptives is "lawful and essential to women's health."

The Obama administration has defended the law and federal officials say they have already created rules exempting certain nonprofits and religiously affiliated organizations from the contraceptives requirements. 

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