Last week, President Obama attempted to respond to the strong objections that have been raised by the Catholic Church and other faith communities to the Department of Health and Human Services’ unprecedented mandate that would force religious institutions, in violation of their religious beliefs, to provide and pay for abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilization.  Unfortunately, the “accommodation” that the president announced still presents grave moral concerns and continues to violate our constitutionally protected religious freedom.

The administration’s proposal continues to involve needless government intrusion in the internal governance of religious institutions, particularly in the definition of who is and who is not a religious employer.  Despite last month’s unanimous Supreme Court decision upholding the right of religious institutions to choose whom they appoint to teach their faith and carry out their mission, the administration remains unwavering in its attempt to assert control in matters of religion.  Catholic schools, social service organizations, hospitals and universities are no less Catholic than our churches, but apparently, these institutions are not considered to be Catholic enough to meet the definition required by the HHS mandate for a religious exemption.

As for the insurance-related provisions themselves, the federal mandate remains essentially unchanged.  The only “fix” offered by the president was to propose that insurance companies, instead of religious institutions directly, be required to cover procedures and products that they find objectionable at no cost in their insurance policies.  Regardless of how it is characterized, shifting the cost of these drugs and procedures to insurance companies does not make their requirement any less objectionable or lessen the infringement on our religious freedom and rights of conscience.

For example, President Obama’s announcement does not provide any accommodation for the Archdiocese of Washington.  Like many large organizations, both for-profit and nonprofit, this archdiocese does not purchase group health insurance from insurance companies.  In order to provide insurance consistent with our religious beliefs, our health benefit plan is a self-insured plan that extends coverage to 3,600 employees.  This means that the archdiocese is the insurer and the archdiocese covers all claim costs.  There is no insurance company involved.  Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the HHS mandate, self-insured organizations like ours are treated the same as regular insurance providers.  This means that like Aetna or Blue Cross, the archdiocese and other self-insured religious organizations would be required to both provide and pay for drugs and procedures we consider morally wrong in our employee health plans.

Even for religious institutions who are employers and who purchase group health insurance from insurance companies, the problem created by the mandate remains unresolved.  Those institutions will still be compelled to purchase insurance policies that provide free abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilizations.  Since these additional drugs and procedures will be automatically provided by the insurer by virtue of the  insurance policy (even though not expressly listed in the policy), it is no response to our moral concerns to say that religious employers will not have to pay for them because their insurance companies will. Catholic institutions will be forced to pay for and maintain policies that enable their employees to receive insurance coverage of products and procedures that violate our religious convictions.

At this point, it appears that nothing has really changed. Religious employers are still being compelled to provide insurance plans that offer free abortion-inducing drugs, sterilizations and contraceptives in violation of their religious freedom.

The only complete solution to the problem that this mandate poses is for Congress to pass legislation to protect freedom of religion.  The Respect for Rights of Conscience Act is one of several bills that have been introduced for this very purpose. 

What is at stake here is a question of human freedom.  The authors of the Bill of Rights enshrined freedom of religion as the “First Freedom,” our nation’s founding principle.  The HHS mandate is a direct challenge to that First Freedom, and must not be allowed to stand.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl is the archbishop of Washington.

More on this story:

Rick Santorum’s very Catholic birth control beliefs

You can’t ‘compromise’ on religious liberty

Catholics: Beyond contraception?

Birth control mandate: Beyond our God-given rights

Miller: In birth control debate, whose conscience will rule?

Read more stories from area faith leaders on On Faith/Local.