Catholic bishops across the country say they may be compelled to stop offering health insurance. This threat is the latest volley in a battle between church leaders and the Obama administration over whether the government will force Catholic institutions to pay for insurance that covers contraception, sterilization and abortion medications.
In Massachusetts, parishioners got the latest news on the church's fight with President Obama in a letter distributed after Mass Sunday and posted on Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s blog. It includes:
Unless the rule is overturned, we Catholics will be compelled and must be prepared either to violate our consciences, or to drop health coverage for our employees (and suffer the penalties of doing so).
To clarify, the Obama ruling would exempt churches, but Catholic schools, hospitals and organizations, such as Catholic Charities, would, after one year, have to cover many types of birth control, tubal ligations and medications that end pregnancies.
Father Bryan Hehir, the secretary for Health Care and Social Services at the Archdiocese of Boston, says contraception has been a controversial topic within the church for decades. But in this case, the government is forcing the church to pay for services that violate Catholic teachings.
"You’re asking an institution of the church to provide resources for a practice that it has disagreement with," Hehir says. "That’s the point. The institutional issue is what raises the religious freedom issue."
"We’re absolutely headed for a showdown," says Philip Lawler, who edits the conservative Catholic World News. Lawler says Catholic leaders feel backed against a wall after years of concessions on birth control. He predicts, "there’ll be some Catholic institutions that drop health insurance, they'll be civil disobedience, they'll be court fights. I have never in my lifetime seen such a concerted effort on the part of the hierarchy to rally the troops and I can't imagine that this will end without either the administration climbing down or some fairly significant conflicts."
A few Catholic institutions say they are ready to follow through on the threat to stop providing health insurance for their employees rather than pay for contraception.
Charlie McKinney is vice president at Thomas Moore, a Catholic college in Merrimack, N.H., with less than 100 students. McKinney says Catholics are focused now on reversing the ruling. But if the ruling stands, the college will consider dropping health insurance.
"We view it as forcing us to act against our principles, against the principles of the church in order to be consistent with this mandate," he says. "That is almost a situation where there's not a solution."
In addition to finding insurance on their own, possibly new doctors, and losing the pre-tax income benefit, employees might have to pay a penalty if they don’t buy an individual health plan right away. Churches, schools, health care agencies and Catholic charities would face a fine for failure to provide insurance.
Judy Waxman, vice president for Health and Reproductive Rights at the National Women’s Law Center, says it’s hard to believe that the church would create so much disruption and risk losing employees over this issue.
"Because there would be contraception — which, by the way, 98 percent of all American women, including Catholic women, use at some time — that therefore the institution should provide no coverage whatsoever, that’s outlandish," Waxman says.
But church leaders say this fight is about more than birth control. Father Hehir worries this ruling would become a precedent for forcing hospitals, schools or Catholic charities to comply with additional policies that violate church teachings.
"If this stands in this way, what else will follow behind it?" he asks. "So that’s why it’s seen as both important in itself and in its consequences."
The requirement that Catholic institutions must pay for insurance that includes birth control is not scheduled to take effect for a year. There's widespread expectation that Catholic organizations will sue to prevent the order from going into effect.
This program aired on February 6, 2012.