Bishops say White House 'exemption' not entirely true

Following the furor over the Administration’s recently-announced federal mandate making coverage of abortifacient drugs and FDA-approved contraceptives obligatory in faith-based institutions, the White House yesterday tried to explain that “this policy provides for an exemption for churches and houses of worship.”

But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was not buying it at all.

Questioned about the controversial new rule issued by the Department of Health and Human Services at the White House press briefing Monday, Press Secretary Jay Carney insisted that “after this decision was made, there was some misreporting about what it is and what it isn’t. I think lost in the initial reports is the fact that this policy provides for an exemption for churches and houses of worship…”

Explaining that the Administration tried “to find the right and appropriate balance between religious concerns, on the one hand, and the need to provide health care coverage to women across the country” Carney again stated that “churches, houses of worship are exempted from this policy.”

The president’s top spokesman then backtracked a bit, telling reporters that “we will continue for the coming year… to work with those religious institutions to try to implement this policy in a way that ensures that women have access to preventive care, but try to allay the concerns of these institutions — because we take very seriously people’s religious beliefs and their objections.” 

As to Carney’s repeated claim of churches are “exempted from this policy,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops shot back: “This is not entirely true. To be eligible, even churches and houses of worship must show the government that they hire and serve primarily people of their own faith and have the inculcation of religious values as their purpose. Some churches may have service to the broader community as a major focus, for example, by providing direct service to the poor regardless of faith. Such churches would be denied an exemption precisely because their service to the common good is so great. More importantly, the vast array of other religious organizations – schools, hospitals, universities, charitable institutions – will clearly not be exempt [emphasis added].”

Carney’s remarks on the controversial HHS ruling attracted nearly as many questions at the Monday briefing as those about the possibility of Israel bombing Iran or Syrian strongman Assad falling.  They came one day after Roman Catholic priests throughout the Washington, DC area read a letter from Archbishop Donald Cardinal Wuerl denouncing the ruling and charging that the Administration “has ignored the most fundamental freedom, religious liberty.”