A contentious battle between Catholic groups and the Obama administration has flared in recent days, fueled by the new health care law and ongoing divisions over access to abortion and birth control.
The latest dispute centers on the Department of Health and Human Service’s decision in late September to end funding to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to help victims of human trafficking, or modern-day slavery. The church group had overseen nationwide services to victims since 2006 but was denied a new grant in favor of three other groups.
The bishops organization, in line with the church’s teachings, had refused to refer trafficking victims for contraceptive or abortion services. The American Civil Liberties Union sued and HHS officials said they made a policy decision to award the grants to agencies that would refer women to those services.
The bishops conference is threatening legal action and accusing the administration of anti-Catholic bias, which HHS officials deny.
The fight escalates an already difficult relationship between the government and some Catholics over several issues. The bishops fiercely oppose the administration’s decision in February to no longer defend the federal law barring the recognition of same-sex marriage. Dozens of Catholic groups also have objected in recent weeks to an HHS mandate — issued under the health care law — that requires private insurers to provide women with contraceptives without co-payments or other out-of-pocket charges.
In the case of the trafficking contract, senior political appointees at HHS stepped in to award the new grants to the bishops’ competitors, overriding an independent review board and career staffers who had recommended that the bishops be funded again, according to federal officials and internal HHS documents. That happened as the ACLU suit is preceding before a federal judge in Boston.
The decision not to fund the bishops this time has caused controversy inside HHS. A number of career officials refused to sign documents connected to the grant, feeling that the process was unfair and politicized, individuals familiar with the matter said. Their concerns have been reported to the HHS inspector general’s office.
The Catholic bishops of Illinois have decried the news that Governor Pat Quinn will participate in a Pro-Choice Leadership Award ceremony.
In a public statement, the bishops said that Quinn’s participation in the even is “irreconcilable with any honest profession of the Catholic faith.” Quinn identifies himself as a Catholic.
Shrugging off the criticism from the bishops, Quinn said that he was proud to present the Pro-Choice Leadership Award, saying that it was “the proper, Christian thing to do.”
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is urging the US Senate to reject the Respect for Marriage Act--a measure that would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which became law in 1996.
“DOMA recognizes for federal purposes that marriage is defined as the union of one man and one woman,” notes Bishop Salvatore Cordileone of Oakland, chairman of the USCCB Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage. “It also prevents the redefinition of marriage in any one state from forcing other states to follow suit.”
“DOMA is rational, and its repeal would be unjust,” he continued. “It takes into account the distinguishing properties of unity and procreation that mark the relationship of husband and wife.”
“Redefining marriage to mean simply an arrangement of consenting adults violates justice because it interferes with basic human rights,” he added. “Changing the institution of marriage by making it indifferent to the absence of one sex or the other denies that children have the fundamental human right to be cared by both their mother and father. Such revision transforms marriage from a child-centered to an adult-centered status to the detriment of children.”
Bishop Cordileone added:
Redefining marriage also threatens the fundamental human right of religious freedom. Those who refuse on moral and religious grounds to accept or accommodate the redefinition of legal marriage are already being wrongly accused of bigotry and hatred, bias and prejudice. They are being stigmatized and marginalized precisely because they are exercising their religious freedom to teach and practice their values.
In places where marriage’s core meaning has been altered through legal action, officials are beginning to target for punishment those believers and churches that refuse to adapt. Any non-conforming conduct and even expressions of disagreement, based simply on support for marriage as understood since time immemorial, are wrongly being treated as if they harmed society, and somehow constituted a form of evil equal to racism. DOMA represents an essential protection against such threats to faith and conscience.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, has thanked Rep. Joseph Pitts for scheduling a November 2 hearing entitled “Do New Health Law Mandates Threaten Conscience Rights and Access to Care?” Pitts, a Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, is an evangelical Protestant.
Scheduled to testify in favor of conscience protection are William Cox of the Alliance of Catholic Health Care, David Stevens of the Christian Medical Association, and Jane Belford, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Washington. Democrats on Rep. Pitts’s committee have invited Jon O’Brien, the president of Catholics for Choice, to testify at the hearing.
Health reform legislation passed by Congress in March 2010 “excluded longstanding protections for conscience rights on abortion” and “created new open-ended mandates for ‘essential health benefits’ and ‘preventive services’ to be included in almost all private health plans, without any provision for individuals or institutions that may have a moral or religious objection to particular items or procedures,” Cardinal DiNardo said in a November 1 letter to Rep. Pitts. “This last deficiency in the statute has now been exploited by the Department of Health and Human Services to impose a nationwide mandate for coverage of all FDA-approved contraceptive drugs (including at least one abortion drug similar to RU-486), sterilization procedures, and education and counseling to promote these to ‘all women with reproductive capacity.’”
"Under the new HHS mandate, Catholic organizations committed to their moral and religious teaching will have no choice but to stop providing health care and other services to the needy who are not Catholic, or stop providing health coverage to their own employees,” he continued. “This is an intolerable dilemma, and either choice will mean reduced access to health care.”
Cardinal DiNardo added:
Even recent findings that hormonal contraceptives can heighten women’s risk of contracting and transmitting the AIDS virus has not made any difference to this campaign – although the “preventive services” package of benefits is, among other things, supposedly aimed at preventing AIDS. Is the drive to maximize contraceptive coverage, even among those who do not want it, such an urgent national priority that it transcends concerns about religious liberty, our nation’s “First Freedom,” as well as concerns about women’s health and about access to basic health care for men and women alike?