Catholic churches and affiliated organizations in Texas say they won't stand for a new federal law that would require many employers to provide contraception coverage in their health insurance plans.
Although churches are exempt, other religiously affiliated institutions such as hospitals and universities are not. In Austin, for example, the Seton Healthcare Family, a major nonprofit hospital system that provides health care to 1.8 million Central Texans, doesn't cover contraception for its employees, and has no intention of starting.
“As a Catholic health system, Seton Healthcare Family does not cover contraceptives for participants in the employee health plan,” said Adrienne Lallo, the system's communications director. “There are no plans to change.”
Many Catholic entities say the Obama administration’s mandate, which would take effect in August 2013, violates their rights to free exercise of religion.
“The response we’ve received from people in the congregations and pews has been tremendous,” said Jeff Patterson, executive director for the Texas Catholic Conference. “They’ve certainly identified that this is a violation of their religious freedoms, and they want to see it overturned.”
But the administration — which has appeared open to some form of compromise in recent days — says the mandate will improve the quality of women’s health services. In a January statement, Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said the administration only included the contraception provision after careful consideration.
Birth control "is documented to significantly reduce health costs, and is the most commonly taken drug in America by young and middle-aged women,” Sebelius said. “This rule will provide women with greater access to contraception by requiring coverage and by prohibiting cost sharing. I believe this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services.”
Some political insiders fear the contraception rule could affect President Obama’s relationship with Hispanic voters, whose support he will likely need as he seeks re-election. But Jason Casellas, an assistant government professor and associate director of the Irma Rangel Public Policy Institute at the University of Texas, said the effect is unclear at this point.
“It depends on how far this policy goes, whether Obama responds to pressure from Catholics and makes some adjustments,” Casellas said. “Generally, Hispanics don’t vote on social issues. They vote on the economy, and polls show Obama is doing well with Catholics."
In Texas, the outcry against the effort has been pronounced. Several bishops have written letters that have been read aloud during church services, asking congregants to contact their congressmen and the president to express opposition to the rule. Bishop Joe Vasquez of the Austin Diocese wrote that Catholics “cannot — we will not — comply with this unjust law. ... And as a result, unless this rule is overturned, we Catholics will be compelled to either violate our consciences, or to drop health coverage for our employees (and suffer the penalties for doing so).”
Christian González, director of communications for the Austin Diocese, said the letter “was met by applause, and even standing ovations, especially the part in the letter that says we will not comply with the rule.”
Some bishops have also encouraged their congregants to support the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, a congressional measure that would amend the law to allow health plan sponsors to deny coverage of specific medical items or services that are “contrary to [their] religious beliefs or moral convictions.”
Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia law professor and an expert on American religious liberty law, said that the mandate could be proved to be a violation of Catholic organizations’ constitutional rights.
“The required coverage includes the morning-after pill and the week-after pill, drugs that in the Catholic view cause abortions,” Laycock said in a recent interview with the University of Virginia School of Law. “...Most obviously, these requirements violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which protects against federally imposed burdens on the free exercise of religion.”
Leaders of other Christian denominations in Texas haven't had the same reaction to the rule.
“I think the law is a good one because it gives access to affordable birth control for women,” said the Rev. Susan Sprague, an associate pastor at Austin’s University United Methodist Church and a member of Planned Parenthood’s Clergy Advisory Group in Central Texas. “I don’t see any problem with the law because it does not mandate that someone take birth control."
Seton, like a number of other Catholic organizations, believes a compromise is likely to be reached before the mandate takes effect.
“We are very disappointed with the narrow definition of a religious employer, but the ruling on employer responsibilities does not take effect until August 2013, providing ample time to reach a resolution that allows all Catholic employers to find a way to uphold Catholic teaching,” Lallo said.
State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., an anti-abortion Catholic Democrat from Brownsville who voted for the abortion sonogram measure in the previous legislative session, said the contraception mandate is primarily a federal issue.
"However, I will say that I deeply sympathize with hospitals and charities who have difficulty reconciling religious beliefs with federal policy," he said.