In a statement released after a closed, two-day meeting, USCCB called the issue a "struggle for religious freedom" that "is not about access to contraceptives but about the government's forcing the church to provide them" (Boorstein, Washington Post, 3/14).
The contraceptive coverage rules implement a provision in the federal health reform law (PL 111-148) that requires health plans to cover preventive services without copayments or deductibles (Women's Health Policy Report, 3/14). The rules do not apply to religious institutions that have a primary purpose of inculcating religious values and that mainly employ and serve people of their own religion. The definition primarily applies to houses of worship and does not include religiously affiliated employers with more general missions, such as hospitals and colleges (Simon, Reuters, 3/14).
After many Catholic leaders said the definition was too narrow, the Obama administration announced that religiously affiliated employers will not have to offer contraceptive coverage for their employees, but their insurers will have to provide it directly to women at no additional cost. Although the changes satisfied some religious groups, including the Catholic Health Association, the bishops have continued to call for an even broader exemption and oppose the rules in general (Women's Health Policy Report, 3/14).
The bishops' statement said, "If this definition is allowed to stand, it will spread throughout federal law, weakening its healthy tradition of generous respect for religious freedom and diversity" (Washington Post, 3/14).
White House officials said the definition is not meant to set a precedent.
Administration, Bishops in 'Quiet' Talks
Meanwhile, USCCB representatives and Obama administration officials have been "quietly negotiating" about the contraceptive coverage rules, sources close to the talks tell Reuters. The definition of religious institutions is a main area of contention. Although progress has been slow, both sides have said they hope to continue the discussions (Reuters, 3/14).
The bishops in the coming days are expected to launch a broader campaign that will oppose other efforts at the state and federal level that they say aim to infringe on religious freedom. Some observers have said the new campaign is an effort to improve the bishops' public image amid an intensely partisan debate (Washington Post, 3/14).
Debra Ness, publisher & president, National Partnership
Andrea Friedman, associate editor & director of reproductive health programs, National Partnership
Marya Torrez, associate editor & senior reproductive health policy counsel, National Partnership
Melissa Safford, associate editor & policy advocate for reproductive health, National Partnership
Perry Sacks, assistant editor & health program associate, National Partnership
Cindy Romero, assistant editor & communications assistant, National Partnership
Justyn Ware, editor
Amanda Wolfe, editor-in-chief
Heather Drost, Hanna Jaquith, Marcelle Maginnis, Ashley Marchand and Michelle Stuckey, staff writers
Tucker Ball, director of new media, National Partnership