The Department of Health and Human Services proposed some regulations a few weeks ago to implement a part of the 2010 health-care law, and it asked concerned parties to file comments on the regulations by Friday. In a section of the Affordable Care Act that didn’t get much public attention during the debates last year, Congress asked HHS to prescribe a list of “preventive services for women” that health-care plans across the country would have to provide to subscribers at no additional cost.
The regulations that HHS unveiled in August will require Catholic University to offer its students sterilization procedures and prescription contraceptives, including pills that act after fertilization to induce abortions. If we comply, as the law requires, we will be helping our students do things that we teach them, in our classes and in our sacraments, are sinful — sometimes gravely so. It seems to us that a proper respect for religious liberty would warrant an exemption for our university and other institutions like it.
These regulations are more wide-ranging than what I have described. They apply not only to student health plans but also to employee health plans, group health plans and health insurance issuers. And they apply to hundreds of Catholic institutions outside the field of higher education — elementary and secondary schools, hospitals, social service organizations such as Catholic Charities, and so on. The rules direct that we provide all contraceptive methods approved by the Food and Drug Administration, sterilization procedures, “and patient education and counseling” at no additional cost to plan members.
The rules do include an exemption for “religious employers,” but the term is defined in a way that excludes Catholic universities and most other Catholic institutions. The rules say: “The inculcation of religious values [must be] the purpose of the organization.” That is too narrow to include Catholic universities, which observe norms of academic freedom and teach chemical thermodynamics, aerospace engineering, musical theater, Mandarin Chinese and the Victorian novel along with theology. It’s too narrow to include St. Ann’s Infant & Maternity Home in Hyattsville, which provides care to abused and neglected children and to pregnant adolescents who need help. Nor does it encompass the Jeanne Jugan Residence for the elderly, which is across the street from our campus and run by Little Sisters of the Poor.
The rules disqualify any organization that does not also employ and serve “primarily persons who share the religious tenets of the organization.” This would require Catholic hospitals and Catholic Charities to abandon their commitment to serve poor people of all faiths. It would disqualify Catholic middle schools such as Nativity Miguel Network, which educates boys of all faiths tuition-free. And it would exclude any Catholic college or university whose faculty and student body are not majority Catholic.
Even if an organization meets all these criteria, it is still not considered a “religious employer” unless it is one of the few nonprofits that are excused under the tax law from filing an IRS Form 990. This stipulation limits the exemption to churches, their integrated auxiliaries and religious orders.
I understand, as do the leaders of other Catholic organizations, that not all citizens share the views that the Catholic Church holds about contraception and sterilization. It is particularly sad that not all Americans share our conviction that abortion is gravely wrong, even in the earliest stages of pregnancy. But in objecting to these regulations, our university does not seek to impose its moral views on others. All we ask is respect for the religious beliefs we try to impart to our students.
It does not take a college education to see the hypocrisy in offering to pay for the very services we condemn in our theology classes and seek forgiveness for in our sacraments. It should not be the business of the federal government to force Catholic schools and other Catholic institutions into such a collective violation of our own conscientious beliefs.
The writer is president of the Catholic University of America.