After initially telegraphing optimism about President Barack Obama's decision Friday to amend the religious exemption for mandatory birth-control and sterilization coverage, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has declared total opposition to any compromise on the issue.
The organization wrote that it will continue pushing for a complete end to the birth control mandate "with no less vigor, no less sense of urgency" than before the Obama administration decided to let nonprofit church-affiliated employers such as hospitals and universities, and not just churches, technically opt out of the requirement.
"The only complete solution to this religious liberty problem is for the Department of Health and Human Services to rescind the mandate of these objectionable services," the conference said in a statement released late Friday.
Just hours before, Cardinal-designate Timothy Michael Dolan of New York, who heads the conference, said he saw "initial opportunities in preserving the principle of religious freedom" in Obama's action. He also called it "a first step in the right direction."
The dispute concerns the requirement under the Obama-sponsored 2010 health-care law that certain "preventive services" be included in all health insurance plans, with no out-of-pocket charges to the person insured.
The administration announced in August that contraception and sterilization would be among those services. It also said that churches with a moral objection to pharmacological birth control would not be required to offer that coverage to employees.
Many organizations and experts, Catholic and otherwise, contended that the exemption was not broad enough.
Last month the administration said nonprofit religious-affiliated organizations not offering contraception and sterilization coverage in their health plans would have an extra year, until August 2013, to comply with the mandate. However, critics said the delay did nothing to address the moral objections.
On Friday, Obama announced that nonprofit church-affiliated entities would be able to opt out in a particular way. They would not have to provide contraception in their health plans, but female employees wanting coverage could obtain it directly from the insurance companies.
The arrangement would not add any cost to the employee's premium, the argument being that prevention of childbirth is cheaper than childbirth.
In their statement, however, the bishops say that among the groups needing "clear protection" from the contraception mandate are "religious and secular for-profit employers." That would sweep in a far larger variety of organizations.
Richard Doerflinger, an official of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was asked whether that meant that a Catholic owner of a sporting-goods store who believed that use of birth-control pills is immoral should be able to offer health insurance excluding that coverage. He said it did.
"That person should have the freedom to choose the health plan that does not violate his convictions. It doesn't mean he will be able to find it, but the government shouldn't have anything to say about it," Doerflinger said Saturday.
In addition, religiously affiliated insurance companies are not exempt from the mandate. Friday's announcement also left unresolved what a Catholic-affiliated organization that self-insures and objects to contraception would do, as there is no insurance company to provide coverage directly to employees.
Objections to the compromise came from quarters other than the bishops.
It drew a swift rebuke from Jim Towey, who headed President George W. Bush's faith-based office and is now president of Ave Maria University, a conservative Catholic school near Naples.
"We subsidize these health plans, so the question is whether university resources are underwriting this," Towey said.
He said the university board planned to meet Monday to discuss legal action against the new mandate.
Some Catholic organizations, however, appeared satisfied by Obama's action. The head of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, Sister Carol Keehan, said the "framework developed has responded to the issues we identified that needed to be fixed.