After months of study, the Catholic Health Association (CHA), the largest network of nonprofit health care facilities in the United States, has reversed its initial embrace of the Obama administration’s “accommodation” for religious organizations from its “contraception mandate.”

CHA now says the mandate’s exemption for religious groups “is narrower than any conscience clause ever enacted in federal law and reflects an unacceptable change in federal policy regarding religious beliefs.” It urges “at the very least” a broadening of the definition of religious employers covered by the exemption.

“If [federal health agencies] unfortunately continue to pursue the course that all employees must have access to contraceptive services without cost, then the government will need to develop a way to pay for and provide such services directly to those employees who desire such coverage without any direct or indirect involvement of religious employers,” the CHA says in a new analysis, issued as a five-page formal comment to the Department of Health and Human Services.

If anything is likely to awaken the Obama administration to these religious freedom concerns, the CHA’s firm statement is it.

It criticizes the government’s approach to the mandate as splitting a religious group “into secular and religious components solely to impose burdens on the secular portion. To make this distinction is to create a false dichotomy between the Catholic Church and the ministries through which the Church lives out the teachings of Jesus Christ.”

The CHA limits its analysis to the impact of the regulation — which requires employers and insurers to facilitate coverage of abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and contraception — on hospitals and health care providers. In a footnote, though, it acknowledges broader constitutional concerns and remaining issues of the regulation’s application to other entities such as insurers and individuals, and adds: “The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has persuasively addresse[d] these points in its comments letter.”

Religious Liberty pamphlet

The mid-June statement heals a devastating rift in Catholic opposition to this religious freedom threat. Those who support the mandate’s broad coercion of Catholic organizations to facilitate procedures contrary to the Church’s religious tenets have routinely pointed to the apparent acceptance of the mandate by the CHA, which rightly brings enormous credibility to health care policy questions, considering that Catholic hospitals care for one in every six American patients each year. Now the U.S. Catholic bishops, the CHA and other Catholic organizations like Our Sunday Visitor, which has joined a federal lawsuit to defend its religious liberty rights, speak with a powerful and unified voice.

And because the CHA is an organization that can claim no small direct credit in the original passage of the Affordable Care Act — its president, Daughter of Charity Sister Carol Keehan, even received from President Barack Obama one of the pens he used to sign the bill into law — its new contraception mandate condemnation, which was signed by Sister Keehan and two CHA board members, cannot credibly be dismissed as partisan or politically motivated.

In short: If anything outside the courts is likely to awaken the Obama administration to the real religious freedom concerns the mandate represents, the CHA’s firm opposition is it.

The CHA’s unequivocal new stance also adds a welcome boost of energy for Catholic Americans as they celebrate — with one voice — the June 21-July 4 “Fortnight for Freedom” in defense of the First Amendment religious liberty rights of Catholics and of all Americans.

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