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Catholics protest mandate to cover birth control

Bishop Samuel Aquila

Local Catholic leaders joined a nationwide pushback against a new federal health care mandate this weekend, claiming that forcing insurance plans to cover birth control violates their religious freedom.

The requirement, part of the national health care law and issued last week by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, will force health care insurance, even when offered by a religious employer, to pay for contraceptive medicine for women without co-pays.

A letter in which Bishop Samuel Aquila of the Fargo Diocese opposes the plan was read in area parishes over the weekend, according to Christopher Dodson, executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference.

"In so ruling, the Administration has cast aside the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States," Aquila wrote, "denying to Catholics our Nation's first and most fundamental freedom - that of religious liberty."

Aquila said in the letter the requirement includes "abortion-inducing drugs," but Erin Shields, a spokeswoman with the HHS, said only FDA-approved methods of contraception are covered by the mandate.

The law does exempt some religious institutions, such as parishes themselves, from providing the coverage, Shields said.

Church-run schools, hospitals and charities that serve and employ non-Catholics, though, would have to provide the coverage to their employees, under the mandate set to take effect Aug. 1. Religious outfits will have an extra year to comply, pushing the deadline to Aug. 1, 2013.

Dodson called the exemptions problematic, saying they punish Catholic institutions for serving non-Catholics.

"The exemptions they carved out are so narrow that even Jesus Christ wouldn't be able to be eligible," Dodson said.

Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, said Bishops nationwide are united against the mandate.

"The preventive services mandate represents an unprecedented attack" on religious freedom, he said.

Tammi Kromenaker, director of the Red River Women's Clinic in Fargo, said the new mandate is a step in the right direction.

"Many major employers in the Fargo-Moorhead area do not cover birth control insurance," Kromenaker said. "The out-of-pocket cost for birth control can be astronomical."

In a statement, Kathleen Sebelius, the Health and Human Services secretary, said the decision to include the mandate was made after careful consideration.

"I believe this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services," she said.