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WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican and the president of The Catholic University of America were among 300 signers of a letter who called President Barack Obama's revision to a federal contraceptive mandate "unacceptable" and said it remains a "grave violation of religious freedom and cannot stand."
On Feb. 10, Obama said religious employers could decline to cover contraceptives if they were morally opposed to them, but the health insurers that provide their health plans would be required to offer contraceptives free of charge to women who requested such coverage.
The change came after three weeks of intensive criticism that Department of Health and Human Services' contraception mandate would require most religious institutions to pay for coverage they find morally objectionable, despite a limited religious exemption.
Now questions have been raised over how the revision announced by the president will pertain to the many dioceses and Catholic organizations that are self-insured and whether it could still force entities morally opposed to contraception to pay for such services.
The letter signed by former Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard and Catholic University's John Garvey, along with professors and other academics, and Catholic and other religious leaders, said it was "an insult to the intelligence of Catholics, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other people of faith and conscience to imagine that they will accept an assault on their religious liberty if only it is covered up by a cheap accounting trick."
Other critics also said the change was a matter of semantics and still failed to address the conscience rights of faith groups and the issue of religious liberty.
Supporters, who included organizations such as Catholics United and Catholic Democrats, said it was a viable response that would keep conscience rights intact and address the health care needs of women.
Still others who opposed the contraceptive mandate said the revision could be a step in the right direction but needed more study because many questions "remained unanswered."
Catholic Charities USA said Feb. 16 that contrary to media reports the organization has "not endorsed" the revision announced by Obama.
"We unequivocally share the goal of the U.S. Catholic bishops to uphold religious liberty and will continue to work with the USCCB (U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) toward that goal," it said in a statement posted on its website.
Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, told Catholic News Service that his organization has "conveyed to the administration that we are interested and deeply committed to ongoing conversation" about the issue.
"We look forward to more in-depth, serious negotiations based on religious liberty being the primary issue on the table," he added.
Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, who has called the HHS mandate "profoundly disturbing on many levels," said Obama's revision was a "welcome step toward recognizing the freedom of religious institutions to abide by the principles that define their respective missions."
In a Feb. 10 statement on the university's website, he said that a "number of unclear and unresolved issues" must be addressed and he hoped they would be discussed in future meetings of U.S. bishops and other religious leaders and White House officials.
An Obama administration official who asked not to be named told CNS in an email Feb. 13 that the White House planned in the coming weeks to convene "a series of meetings with faith community leaders" about the HHS mandate. A particular focus of the meetings, he said, would be self-insured group health plans that cover the employees of many Catholic dioceses and institutions.
The Catholic Health Association, in a Feb. 13 statement on its website, said it was looking forward to "reviewing the specifics of the changes in the mandated benefits."
"On Friday, Feb. 10, 2012, we were notified that our organizations would not have to buy or refer employees for contraception and other services. We were also told that the self-insured plans would be accommodated in this," the CHA statement said. "At this time, there are many unanswered questions about specifics. We now have the challenging work of reviewing the proposed rules, examining their impact and giving input before they are finalized.
"As more is known about this, we will be getting that information out to the membership as quickly as possible."
As published in the Federal Register Feb. 15, the final rule said HHS "will work with stakeholders to propose and finalize this policy" before it takes effect in August 2013.
A Feb. 10 statement by the Cardinal Newman Society said it would "continue to work with Catholic colleges and universities to find the most acceptable solution to this violation of their religious liberty. But there can be no compromise that does not eliminate the mandate."
Last fall, 18 Catholic colleges asked the Obama administration to exempt all religious individuals and institutions from being forced to participate in the federal contraception mandate.
The Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, Mich., issued a Feb. 13 statement taking the Obama administration to task for failing to "comprehend Catholic moral reasoning and the full-meaning of the principle of religious liberty." They called it "insulting" that the Obama administration suggested the revision would be "net cost neutral."
"It is simply impossible to ensure that the insurance companies will not pass on those costs to the organizations and individuals who conscientiously object to their insurance policies covering abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and artificial contraception," the statement said.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, based in Silver Spring, Md., called the revised mandate "fair and a helpful way for us to move forward."
"This ruling is a major victory for religious liberty and women's health," said a statement signed by several professors at Catholic universities and other religious leaders including Sister Simone Campbell, a Sister of Social Service who leads Network, the Catholic social justice lobby.
In San Francisco, a group of Catholics planned to protest the HHS contraception mandate with a demonstration across the street from an auditorium where Obama was to attend a fundraiser the evening of Feb. 16.
In Michigan, the Catholic conference of the state's bishops applauded the state House of Representatives for passing a resolution that calls on the Obama administration to rescind the HHS mandate, highlights the administration's "attack on religious freedom" and urges the U.S. House and Senate to pass the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act.