Head of US bishops' conference says doubts whether the White House is open to compromise
Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan of New York said that he is “a little sceptical” that the Obama administration wants to find a compromise on the requirement that health plans for most religious employers cover contraceptives and sterilisation free of charge.
In an interview with the CBS This Morning programme, the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops said he expressed his “disappointment and disapproval” when President Barack Obama called him on January 20 to notify him that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was sticking by the contraceptive mandate announced last year but giving religious groups an additional year to comply.
That decision, he said, was “at odds with the very sincere assurances he gave me” during a White House meeting in early November that the religious freedom and conscience rights of those who are morally opposed to contraception and sterilisation would be protected.
Cardinal-designate Dolan said he felt hopeful after the November meeting, but added: “I don’t have those sentiments of hope now.”
The Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate includes a religious exemption, but leaders of various Catholic and other faith-based organisations say it is too narrow and they will still be forced to provide coverage they oppose.
Cardinal-designate Dolan called the decision to require contraceptive coverage by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who is Catholic, a “terribly misguided judgment” but said it had prompted “a massive negative reaction” not only among Catholics but among those who value religious freedom.
The cardinal-designate spoke shortly after both White House press secretary Jay Carney and Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod hinted that Mr Obama would be open to a compromise.
“The president is very interested in finding the appropriate balance between religious beliefs and convictions – and he takes those very seriously – and his commitment to making sure that women of all faiths have access to these important health care preventive services,” Mr Carney said on February 7.
“We certainly don’t want to abridge anyone’s religious freedoms, so we are going to look for a way to move forward that both provides women with the preventive care that they need and respects the prerogatives of religious institutions,” Mr Axelrod said the same day.
In other responses to the HHS contraceptive mandate, a handful of lawsuits have already been filed.
On February 9, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington-based non-profit, public-interest law firm, filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) in the US District Court in Birmingham, Alabama.
The lawsuit, which seeks to have the mandate declared unconstitutional, named Mrs Sebelius, the department she leads and other government agencies as defendants.
“We had no other option but to take this to the courts,” Michael Warsaw, EWTN president and CEO, said in a press release announcing the lawsuit yesterday.
“Under the HHS mandate, EWTN is being forced by the government to make a choice: either we provide employees coverage for contraception and abortion-inducing drugs and violate our conscience or offer our employees and their families no health insurance coverage at all. Neither of those choices is acceptable.”
Mr Warsaw said in the release that the legal action was taken to protect all organisations – Catholic, non-Catholic, religious and secular alike – from “having this mandate imposed on them”.
“This is a moment when EWTN, as a Catholic organisation, has to step and say that enough is enough.”
Lawyers from the Becket Fund previously filed suits against HHS on behalf of Belmont Abbey College, a small Catholic liberal arts college in Belmont, North Carolina, and Colorado Christian University, an interdenominational Christian liberal arts university near Denver.