The Catholic Bishops of Pennsylvania reaffirmed their strong opposition to the mandate issued by the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) which would violate religious freedom and force private insurance plans to cover contraception — including abortifacients — and sterilization. The very narrow definition of “religious employer” would not apply to health insurance plans for Catholic hospitals, colleges or universities, social service agencies, and religious orders that employ lay persons and other Church ministries.

The bishops were meeting in Harrisburg for the annual Board of Governors meeting of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference when they issued their statement Sept. 28. They encouraged concerned citizens to take action by using the Pennsylvania Catholic Advocacy Network at www.pacatholic.org to submit comments to HHS by the Sept. 30 deadline and urge Members of Congress to support legislation to stop this infringement of religious liberty.

The USCCB has a direct link to comment on the HHS mandate http://www.nchla.org/actiondisplay.asp?ID=299

The bishops endorsed the comments already submitted by the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference (PCC) and the Pennsylvania Catholic Health Association (PCHA) and urged others concerned about religious liberty to also voice their objections to HHS and Congress. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., Archbishop of Philadelphia and Chairman of the PCC, said, “The HHS mandate is not simply ‘bad’ social policy, but precedent-setting in its disregard for conscience rights. There is no reasonable defense for a coercive approach to contraception in health insurance coverage, and Catholics need to make their opposition known firmly and immediately to the Department of Health and Human Services.”

“Within the dioceses are over 3. 2 million Catholics; over 1,000 parishes; nearly 500 Catholic schools; 27 Catholic colleges; nearly 100 Catholic social service agencies; 14 Catholic hospitals; 34 long-term care facilities, numerous health care systems and other related health care entities; and over 6,000 women and men religious. The interim rule is one of significant impact upon the Church in Pennsylvania, and that impact will not go unnoticed within the vast Catholic community,” stated PCC’s comments to HHS.

“The religious ‘exemption’ in the mandate fails miserably to assure that religious conscience is protected. The religious exemption is so narrowly crafted that hospitals, universities, religious affiliated social service agencies, Catholic dioceses, parishes and even Catholic elementary schools would be subject to the contraceptive/sterilization mandate. Ignoring the broad nature of the Church’s religious ministries and the care, services and education provided to a diverse group by mandating coverage is an unwarranted attack on religion in general.”

The PCHA also expressed its “grave concern” at the government’s attempt to define what is and what is not religious, calling it “fraught with danger.”

“(The proposed HHS mandate) ignores this nation’s foundations which were built upon freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. The (narrowly defined) religious exemption directly violates the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

The bishops also affirmed their support of school choice and other legislative issues. More information about the PCC is available at www.pacatholic.org.