Catholic bishops say they remain opposed to President Obama's plan to require insurers to provide free birth control, even if religiously affiliated employers such as Catholic hospitals and universities aren't forced to pay for it.
"The only complete solution to this religious liberty problem is for HHS [Department of Health and Human Services] to rescind the mandate of these objectionable services," the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said.
The statement, issued late Friday, makes clear that the bishops' opposition goes well beyond the "religious freedom" dispute that had riled Washington for the last month. The government's decision to guarantee that women have access to contraceptives "remains a grave moral concern," they said.
On Friday morning, Obama had called New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan to tell him of the revised rule. Initially, Dolan described the move as a "first step in the right direction."
But in the later statement, the bishops said they will continue to object because of Obama's decision "to retain HHS's nationwide mandate of insurance coverage of sterilization and contraception."
"We will continue — with no less vigor, no less sense of urgency — our efforts to correct this problem through the other two branches of government," they said.
The White House had no immediate comment on the statement.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act says health insurers must offer "preventive services" with no co-pays. And Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius defined these services to include "all FDA-approved forms of contraception."
On Jan. 20, she said this mandate would take effect in August for most employers. Churches would be exempted from the rule, she said, but not religiously affiliated hospitals, colleges or charities, though they would be given an extra year to comply. Administration officials said that 28 states, including California and New York, already have similar rules for health insurance.
The Catholic bishops reacted fiercely, however, and called the "HHS edict … literally unconscionable." They said it posed "an unprecedented threat to religious freedom." They demanded a much broader "conscience exemption" so Catholic employers would not be required to subsidize birth control for their employees or for students at Catholic colleges.
Polls show that most Americans, including most Catholics, support including free birth control in an employer's health insurance plan, but some prominent political leaders, including Democrats, objected to requiring religious organizations to pay for it.
Obama said Friday he had heard those objections and moved to exempt "religious organizations" from paying for contraceptives if they have a "religious objection." Instead, insurers will be responsible for providing this coverage, which over time should add little or nothing to their costs. That is the case, officials said, because preventing a pregnancy saves money in health care costs.
"Religious organizations won't have to pay for these services, and no religious institutions will have to provide these services directly," the president said.
Several members of Congress have introduced bills to create a "conscience exemption" for employers. The bishops have also threatened to join lawsuits that seek to strike down the mandate as a violation of religious liberty.