TAMPA — When Bishop Robert Lynch spoke from the pulpit Wednesday to a crowd of lawyers and judges, he may have surprised some with his pointed opposition to a key provision of the federal health care reform law.
But he is just one voice in a loud and growing chorus of Catholic leaders nationwide. Chief among their complaints: a requirement in the Affordable Care Act that employers offer free contraceptive coverage as part of health insurance policies beginning next August.
If that mandate doesn't change, Lynch said, the Diocese of St. Petersburg would drop health insurance for its approximately 2,300 employees, and instead give them money to find coverage themselves.
"For the first time in my adult life, I foresee the possibility of some form of civil disobedience, and I am extremely uncomfortable at even the hint of such a thing," Lynch said during Wednesday's annual Red Mass at Tampa's Sacred Heart Church, attended by two dozen judges and about 300 lawyers.
Though federal health officials have proposed that religious employers be exempted from the contraceptive requirement, church officials say the exemption is so narrow, even "Jesus and his apostles" would not meet its requirements, as a Texas cardinal put it. Church leaders have expressed concern as well about implications for Catholic universities and hospitals.
The proposal — which has not yet been made final — defines a religious employer as one that: • Has the teaching of religious values as its purpose; • Primarily employs people who share its religious tenets; • Primarily serves people who share its religious tenets; • Is a nonprofit organization.
Frank Murphy, spokesman for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, said church operations such as Catholic Charities serve people of all faiths. And not all employees are Catholic, including many teachers at diocesan schools.
"We're saying, 'give us more leeway with this,' " Murphy said. "Or, let's go back to what we had before, where they allowed us the freedom of choice tied to our religious beliefs."
The issue triggered a meeting between President Barack Obama and Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. White House spokesman Jay Carney said this week that Obama wants "to strike the right balance between expanding coverage of preventive services and respecting religious beliefs." Contraception stands along other evidence-based preventive measures, such as mammograms and diabetes testing.
The church has opposed the birth control provision from the start, although a recent study by the Guttmacher Institute indicates that Catholic women in the United States use contraception nearly as frequently as non-Catholics.
The health care law already allows individuals such as Christian Scientists, who believe in healing through prayer, to opt out of its insurance mandate. And it does not require coverage of abortions.
On his blog (blogs.dosp.org/bishoplynch) Lynch noted that diocese employees have a "generous" health care plan, one that does not cover contraceptives, the "morning-after'' pill, or drugs like Viagra.
He also expressed fear that because the diocese is self-insured, that might disqualify it from the religious exemption. But a federal health official said Thursday that isn't the case.
In his homily, which appears in full at his blog site, Lynch told the jurists of conflicts between church teachings and the laws of the land. "I have such a fear at this moment in time," he said.
"As employers, we would be forced to provide in health care plans services and procedures which clearly are contrary to our beliefs and teachings," he said.
"If they fail to shift in their present positions,'' he said of federal officials, "then 2,300 employees of the Diocese of St. Petersburg will lose their health care coverage which they have come to treasure and rely upon."
Luis Viera, a Tampa lawyer, was at the Mass. He agreed with the freedom of religion message, but thought the homily could be construed as an attack on the federal effort to expand health care to all.
"The bishop had a good point about religious liberty, as no religious organization should be compelled to subsidize something that violates its collective religious conscience," Viera, 33, said. "But I am troubled by the interpretation some may try to make out of his comments to have an adverse light on health care reform, which I do not believe is true."
News spread quickly throughout the diocese.
"I'm not happy about the prospect of losing our health insurance," said Father Len Plazewski, parochial vicar at Christ the King Catholic Church in Tampa. "But we don't want to be forced into doing things that are against our religious beliefs and moral teaching. That is so un-American to be forced to do something contrary to our belief system."
Murphy said employees stopped him in the hall Thursday asking questions.
"We're telling them regulations haven't been finalized, and that church leadership is doing everything it can to get them fixed," Murphy said. "That's why the bishop is taking a strong leadership position here."
Staff writer Irene Maher contributed to this report. Contact Richard Martin at email@example.com.