Bishops disappointed with recent White House meeting on HHS mandate

March 19, 2012
By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The Obama administration's definition of religious institutions that could be exempt from the new federal health care mandate on contraception appears "here to stay" and "non-negotiable" according to a U.S. bishop who met with White House officials March 14.

"We find that to be distressing and it does not bode well for future discussions," said Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., chairman of the U.S. bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, who attended the meeting along with Bishop William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., immediate past chairman of the bishops' domestic policy committee.

The meeting was the first with U.S. bishops and White House officials since Feb. 10 when President Barack Obama announced revisions to the contraceptive mandate issued by Health and Human Services in January.

When asked about the meeting by Catholic News Service, a White House spokesman offered no comment and could only confirm the meeting took place.

It took place the same day the nation's top Catholic bishops vowed to continue their multipronged defense of religious liberty in the courts, Congress and the White House, which they spelled out in a five-page statement titled "United for Religious Freedom."

The statement was approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Administrative Committee, made up of the USCCB officers and committee chairmen and an elected bishop representative from each of the geographic regions of the USCCB.

Bishop Lori told CNS in a March 16 telephone interview that the meeting provided the opportunity for the "administration to know that the staff of the bishops' conference has been accurately conveying concerns of the bishops, and it was an opportunity for the bishops to experience personally the headwinds that the senior staff of USCCB has been experiencing."

He said the meeting was more one of "ironing out wrinkles, not a fundamental change of course." He also said the administration wanted to tell the bishops that there will likely be "another round of rule making" in the federal health plan and will be seeking comments.

Bishop Lori said he would like the administration to discuss the federal health plan on its principle and also not deal with the church in a segmented way.

The administration has been meeting with Catholic groups separately on this issue, "talking with the bishops on Tuesday, the Catholic Health Association on Wednesday and other groups another day."

"All Catholic stakeholders should be at same table" or attending these White House sessions at the same time, "in order to respect the Catholic Church in its complexity," he added.

Meanwhile, he said he hoped Congress would attempt to revise the language that had been in the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, which the Senate voted to table March 1.

The act, known as the Blunt amendment, because its chief sponsor was Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., would have allowed church-affiliated organizations, including Catholic charities, hospitals, schools and universities, to opt out of coverage of contraception and sterilization and would have extended exemptions to any nonreligious employer with a moral objection to such coverage.

He also said the bishops' Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty plans to publish a statement in the next few days "that will basis for catechesis for discussion on religious liberty."

"We are pursuing remedies with every branch of government," he said.

He also urged people to contact government officials about this issue and to pray for its resolution.

During the USCCB Administrative Committee meeting, the bishops called for a nationwide prayer campaign for protection of religious freedom and conscience rights. "Prayer for Religious Liberty" prayer cards are available in English and Spanish at www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/conscience-protection/resources-on-conscience-protection.cfm.