Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius — a Catholic — announced this month that her federal department would accept the recommendation of a medical policy group to mandate the coverage of contraception — including chemical abortifacients — sterilization and “reproductive health” counseling services in virtually all health care plans, both private and public. 

That means free contraception and sterilizations for all who want it. It also means that those of us who find such procedures morally repugnant will be coerced to pay for it. That is a clear violation of our rights of freedom of conscience. 

‘Could the government possibly intend to pressure Catholic institutions to cease providing health care, education and charitable services to the general public?’

But there’s more. In what appears a clumsy attempt at draping a conscience-rights fig leaf over this egregious policy, Sebelius’ department also announced an “interim” exemption for religious groups. That sounds welcome, until one reads the fine print in a footnote. A religious employer is defined as “one that: (1) has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose; (2) primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets; (3) primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets; and (4) is a nonprofit organization under the Internal Revenue Code.” 

That definition would appear to exempt Catholic parishes, but not Catholic schools, medical facilities and social services. 

In a statement, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, pointed out that under that rule, “our institutions would be free to act in accord with Catholic teaching on life and procreation only if they were to stop hiring and serving non-Catholics.” 

“Could the federal government possibly intend to pressure Catholic institutions to cease providing health care, education and charitable services to the general public?” he asked. “Health care reform should expand access to basic health care for all, not undermine that goal.” 

Mercy Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of the U.S. bishops’ media relations office, sent a strongly worded commentary to journalists, asking whether the Department of Health and Human Services thinks Catholics and other religious believers “are fools.” 

“HHS’s [regulation] conveniently ignores the underlying principle of Catholic charitable actions,” she said. “We help people because we are Catholic, not because our clients are.” 

She urged President Barack Obama to intervene, saying the new regulation was “on its way” to violating the president’s promise last year “that the health care reform act would not fund abortion or force people and institutions to violate their consciences.” 

In fact, at a town hall meeting in Maryland last month, the president voiced at least some support for religious freedom rights, explaining to a young atheist critic why allowing religious nonprofits to hire their coreligionists over nonbelievers did not violate employment discrimination laws ­— because such outreach is connected to their “core function” and “part of their [religious] mission.” 

We praise the president for his defense of the constitutional right of religious freedom and urge him to be consistent in its application. Conscience rights deserve equal if not greater consideration. 

We also renew our call for all Catholics and people of good will to contact their congressional leaders to urge the passage of the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.