Equitable compromise: Faith-based employees deserve the same coverage

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President Barack Obama has not declared war on the Roman Catholic Church, no matter what the faithful may be hearing in church.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said that starting in about 18 months, many faith-based employers will have to provide health insurance coverage that includes reproductive services.

U.S. Catholic bishops -- and right-wing lobbies that seek to drive a wedge between Mr. Obama and liberal Catholic voters -- called the ruling an attack on religious freedom that turns the faithful into second-class citizens. Catholic leaders told churchgoers that "we cannot -- we will not -- comply with this unjust law."

The ruling requires that religious groups that run institutions employing people of different faiths and serving the general public must offer medical coverage that includes free birth control. The compromise affects most church-run hospitals, universities and charitable groups.

Most faith-based workplaces -- houses of worship, schools and colleges where the employees and the people served share the faith of their employers -- are exempt from the regulation. No institution is required to perform, or pay for, abortions.

HHS asked the nonpartisan Institute of Medicine to recommend preventive services for women that should be included in regulations arising from the health care reform law. The institute's report, issued last August, made nine recommendations, including breast-feeding and domestic violence support and counseling, as well as the controversial provision about contraceptive services.

Women's reproductive rights remain under attack across the United States. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the governor and the General Assembly just enacted a law that will saddle abortion clinics with costly and unnecessary regulations. Similar attempts are under way in other states. The federal ruling, however, protects the right of millions of women to make their own health decisions.

Twenty-eight states have contraceptive-equity laws, which require birth control coverage for plans that cover prescription drugs. In these states, the Catholic Church has figured out how to comply with the law without damage to its religious conscience. Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., offers two health insurance options, including a group plan that includes reproductive services.

Despite the bishops' outcry, their reaction does not reflect the opinion of most American Catholics. According to Catholic University of America, 95 percent of American Catholic women have used birth control. Eighty-five percent of American Catholics -- men and women -- favor making birth control available to women who cannot afford it.

Against that background, Sunday sermons on this topic begin to look in part like a conservative church hierarchy's attempt to rein in liberal American members. That battle is internal, and best kept that way. Hospitals, colleges and social services that employ and serve people of all faiths, or none, must meet an equitable standard.



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