Catholic Bishops Revolt Against Birth Control Rules

There's a battle going on between U.S. Catholic bishops and the Obama administration over its recent directive requiring religious institutions to offer coverage for contraception in their health care plans. Some have announced they will not comply with the mandate. Others are calling on parishioners to "defend the faith" and speak out against what they call an intrusion against religious liberty.

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U.S. Catholic bishops have launched a revolt against the Obama administration's rule regarding health care. Bishops say they will not comply with a rule which requires some faith-based employers to include birth control in their health-care coverage. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: When Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced the new health-care rule last month, it set off a firestorm. Under the regulation, religious groups must provide their employees with insurance that covers contraceptives, sterilization and other family planning services. David Zubik, the bishop of Pittsburgh, was floored.

THE REV. DAVID ZUBIK: We can't comply, and we won't comply. There's no way we can. It's a matter of conscience.

HAGERTY: Zubik is one of four bishops who have stated they will not follow the new law. On Sunday, scores of priests read letters to their parishioners, asking them to pray, fast and act by contacting Congress and the administration in protest. Zubik says the church has been trying to persuade the White House to loosen the rule. But instead, he says, the administration sent this message...

ZUBIK: We don't care what you had to say. We don't care about your religious freedom. We don't care about your religious beliefs. You're going to go ahead and do this.

HAGERTY: Now, under the rule, churches, synagogues and mosques do not have to pay for contraceptive coverage. But their charities - hospitals and universities - do since they employ or serve people of other faiths.

THE REV. THOMAS WENSKI: Jesus Christ would not be eligible for an exception.

HAGERTY: Thomas Wenski is archbishop of Miami.

WENSKI: As Catholics, we help people not because they're Catholic, but because we're Catholic. And so our schools, our universities, our Catholic charities, organizations, our hospitals admit people regardless of their faith. What the government is saying to us is that then, we're going to have to operate hospitals for Catholics only?

SARAH LIPTON-LUBET: Taking a job at a hospital simply isn't the same thing as joining a church. When you operate in the public sphere, you need to play by the public rules.

HAGERTY: Sarah Lipton-Lubet is an attorney at the ACLU.

LIPTON-LUBET: What they're asking to do is to impose their religious beliefs on people who don't share them - the nurses, the social workers, the support staff who work at these hospitals, social service agencies and universities. And when a hospital wants to deny their employees contraceptive coverage, what they're really asking for is the ability to use religion to discriminate.

SISTER MARY ANN WALSH: Nobody is forced to work for the Catholic Church.

HAGERTY: Or for its hospitals or charities, says Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokesperson for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. And those employees know the church doesn't pay for contraceptives. She adds that the administration's stand has an impact beyond the Catholic Church.

WALSH: The whole country should be upset by this rule because it's not just the Catholic Church that's affected. It's every religious body in this country.

HAGERTY: Which is why other groups, including evangelicals, are joining with Catholics. She says the rule will deliver a wallop to groups that don't comply with the law. For example, the University of Notre Dame says it would have to pay penalties of up to $10 million a year. Now, the church is working with members of Congress to overturn the law, and it's already looking into a lawsuit.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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