It seems the third time wasn't the charm, after all.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has officially rejected the Obama Administration's latest attempt to ensure that women with health insurance get access to no-cost contraceptive coverage without violating the rights of religious employers.
The administration issued the rules last Friday. While other groups that oppose abortion and birth control immediately dismissed the proposal, the influential bishops held back, saying only that they "welcomed the opportunity to study the proposed regulations closely."
Now, however, it's clear that this attempt by the administration doesn't clear the bar for the bishops, either.
The proposal calls for insurance companies — rather than religious hospitals, universities or charities — to provide contraceptive and sterilization coverage. But that's not good enough, said a statement from Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the conference.
"It appears that the government would require all employees in our 'accommodated' ministries to have the illicit coverage — they may not opt out, nor even opt out for their children — under a separate policy," Dolan said.
He also complained that while the rules seek to accommodate nonprofit religious employers (including churches themselves, which are exempt from the coverage requirement, along with affiliated entities like educational institutions), they don't relieve for-profit employers of the obligation.
"In obedience to our Judeo-Christian heritage, we have consistently taught our people to live their lives during the week to reflect the same beliefs that they proclaim on the Sabbath," said Dolan, referring to owners of non-religious businesses who are suing the federal government because they say the coverage violates their personal religious beliefs. "We cannot now abandon them to be forced to violate their morally well-informed consciences."
Compared with some of Dolan's previous complaints about contraceptive coverage requirements, the latest statement was more measured. "We welcome and will take seriously the Administration's invitation to submit our concerns through formal comments, and we will do so in the hope that an acceptable solution can be found that respects the consciences of all," he said.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is rejecting the latest efforts by the Obama administration to compromise on the thorny issue of contraceptive coverage. That comes after new rules the administration issued last Friday. And it's part of a long-running dispute over the implantation of the Affordable Care Act.
For more, NPR's Julie Rovner joins us in the studio. Hey there, Julie. So, first of all, refresh our memories. What was the administration's proposal last week?
JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: Well, remember we're entering a world where just about everybody is going to have health insurance. The issue is here is how to insure that women have access to contraceptives coverage, without requiring religious employers - who object to artificial birth control and sterilization - to have to provide it or pay for it. There have been various attempts to find workarounds to this since pretty much the middle of 2010. And the latest, last week, proposed to make it clear, first, that churches themselves will be exempt. And, second, that religious schools, hospitals and charities who hire people of multiple faiths have insurance companies provide the contraceptive coverage separately through a very complicated and convoluted mechanism that would basically keep the religious entities out of having to pay for or arrange or even be involved in it in any way.
CORNISH: And are all these religious entities Catholic?
ROVNER: No. But the Catholics are by far the most influential players in all of this. If you can make the bishops happy, the thinking goes, pretty much everyone else doesn't matter that much.
CORNISH: So what did the Conference of Catholic Bishops have to say?
ROVNER: Well, last week, they were just about the only important group involved in this that didn't say anything at all. That led some to speculate that may be this two and half-year-old fight might be nearing a truce, but apparently not yet. A lengthy statement issued today by the Conference of Catholic Bishops, president Cardinal Timothy Dolan said, quote, "This shows movement but falls short of addressing the U.S. bishop's concerns."
CORNISH: So what in particular, do they still find troubling?
ROVNER: Several things, a big one and this will come as a big disappointment to the administration, is this very complicated way of trying to spare religious hospitals and universities from being involved in providing contraceptive coverage. It turns out the bishops don't even like the idea of their employees automatically having that coverage. Even if the entities don't have to provide it, bishops seem to want to have an explicit opt-out for employees and/or their children.
The bishops are also sticking up for religious corners of for-profit companies which, they correctly point out, these rules don't make any allowance for. There are currently a couple of dozen lawsuits where owners of everything from arts and craft stores to heating and cooling firms are suing because the owners say having to provide contraceptive coverage violates the owners' religious beliefs.
CORNISH: So what happens now?
ROVNER: Well, the administration's rules provide 60 days to take public comment. The bishops say they'll definitely provide comment. And the tone of the statement was definitely more conciliatory than it was for the last round of proposals on this. So it still looks like there could still be a compromise. On the other hand, there are still a lot of lawsuits out there and lots of people predicting this question will ultimately get resolved only by the Supreme Court.
CORNISH: NPR health correspondent Julie Rovner. Thanks, Julie.
ROVNER: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.