Can Obama's health-care law force Catholics to support birth control?

Without an exemption for Catholic-linked institutions, the Obama health-care law requirement that insurance plans cover birth control would violate religious liberty, priests say.

The Obama administration has stirred up new and vocal opposition to its health-care law, as Roman Catholic institutions confront a rule that in their view violates religious liberty.

Institutions with ties to the Catholic church, such as hospitals and schools, say they are getting no exemption from a rule requiring that health insurance plans cover contraceptive services. The administration announced the rule, arising from the Affordable Care Act of 2010, about 10 days ago.

This past weekend, it became a topic in Catholic parishes across the country, as priests delivered statements opposing the step.

They argue that it amounts to forcing members of the church, which has long opposed birth control, to offer it or pay for it in health plans. The coverage of contraceptive services could include abortion-inducing drugs, the church says.

"Almost all health insurers will be forced to include those 'services' in the health policies they write. And almost all individuals will be forced  to buy that coverage as a part of their policies," said Alexander Sample, Bishop of Marquette, Mich., in one of the letters read to local Catholics. The rule doesn't apply to houses of worship, but does apply to church-affiliated hospitals, colleges, and social service agencies.

Kathleen Sebelius, President Obama's secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), has said the move "strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services."

She made that statement while announcing the "interim final rule" on Jan. 20. She said the rule, while allowing some exceptions and giving church-linked institutions a year from Aug. 1 to comply, is designed to ensure that women have access to birth control without co-pays or a deductible.

"Scientists have abundant evidence that birth control has significant health benefits for women and their families," she said. "It is documented to significantly reduce health costs, and is the most commonly taken drug in America by young and middle-aged women."

The issue has long been politically sensitive. Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich seized it to lash out at Mr. Obama and at rival Republican Mitt Romney.

"The Obama administration has just launched an attack on Christianity so severe that every single church in Florida had a letter read from the bishops yesterday," he said in a CBS appearance Monday. "Romneycare [in Massachusetts] does the same thing."

Mr. Gingrich painted the issue as an example of why Florida's voters should choose him rather than Mr. Romney to face Obama in November.

The choice to use contraceptive services will still lie with individuals. But critics of the move say it puts many employees at Catholic hospitals in the position of performing services that violate their conscience.

Washington Post political columnist E.J. Dionne argued that the White House has blundered on an issue, church-state relations, on which the president has in the past shown considerable sensitivity.

"Speaking as a Catholic, I wish the Church would be more open on the contraception question," he wrote Sunday. "But speaking as an American liberal who believes that religious pluralism imposes certain obligations on government, I think the Church’s leaders had a right to ask for broader relief from a contraception mandate that would require it to act against its own teachings."

Mr. Dionne praised a Hawaii law calling on religious employers that decline to cover birth control to outline alternate ways for enrollees to access such coverage, and urged the Obama administration to renew its own past efforts to find a compromise on the issue.

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