Catholic hospitals, bishops say conscience clause requirements too narrow
Catholic hospitals have joined forces with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to protest rules in the new health care program of the government, because it may require them to lend free birth control coverage to their employees.
Leaders from the Catholic health care sector and the USCCB have united to seek a broadening of the conscience clause under the rules of the health care program, particularly with regard to religious exemption, because the language used to describe it is too narrow.
Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, said in a statement, “As it stands, the language is not broad enough to protect our Catholic health providers,” National Catholic Register reported.
Keehan said, “Catholic hospitals are a significant part of this nation’s health care, especially in the care of the most vulnerable. It is critical that we be allowed to serve our nation without compromising our conscience,” NCR reported.
Keehan’s statement is significant because in the final weeks prior to the passage of the Obama administration’s health-insurance reform bill, she endorsed its passage despite the fact that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opposed it.
Keehan told the AP that she still supports the government’s expanded health insurance coverage program. However, she believes that the religious exemption clause needs to be widened, and she plans to lobby for its expansion.
Under the government’s proposed religious exemption rule, the clause at issue is the definition of a religious employer, which is described as one who seeks to teach religious values, employs and serves people who share the same faith, and is nonprofit.
The definition does not correlate with Catholic hospitals, which employ some 640,000 people of a range of different faiths without discrimination. It also does not cover educational institutions and organizations that serve disadvantaged populations, including the homeless and the hungry.
Exemption is too narrow
“Although this new rule gives the agency the discretion to authorize a “religious” exemption, it is so narrow as to exclude most Catholic social-service agencies and healthcare providers,” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, chairman of the USCCB, told NCR.
The USCCB is pushing a bill that will strengthen religious freedom within the new health law, called the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act (H.R. 1179), which was introduced by Reps. Dan Boren (D-Okla.) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.).
CHA will proffer comments
Keehan, who is with the Daughters of Charity, said the CHA will proffer its remarks to The department of Health and Human Services, which is accepting comments from all concerned parties before it renders a final decision on the conscience clause later this year.
Keehan told NCR, “We will be submitting written comments to HHS and will continue our dialogue with government officials on the essential need for adequate conscience protections.”
Government spokesman Richard Sorian told the AP, “We look forward to hearing from the public as we work to strike the balance between providing access to proven prevention and respecting religious beliefs.”