A group representing Catholic hospitals throughout the United States has parted ways with the church's hierarchy over the government's birth control mandate.
And while the development may have repercussions in the public debate over the Affordable Care Act, legal experts say it won't impact the more than 60 lawsuits filed over the law's contraception mandate.
The National Catholic Reporter first reported earlier this week that the Catholic Health Association had issued a memo saying it can live with the Obama administration's latest compromise on birth control coverage by religious employers.
"We are pleased that our members now have an accommodation that will not require them to contract, provide, pay or refer for contraceptive coverage," said the CHA statement.
Under President Barack Obama's health care law, most employers are required to cover birth control as a free preventive health service for women workers. Churches and other houses of worship are fully exempt from the mandate. But religiously affiliated hospitals, universities and social service groups are not, nor are for-profit businesses whose owners may object to the mandate on religious grounds.
The compromise, in a final regulation from the administration, attempts to create a buffer for these employers by requiring insurers or another third party to provide contraceptive coverage instead of the religious employer.
But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops contends only the full exemption for any employer who objects to providing birth control to workers for religious reasons will satisfy its concerns. The bishops were recently joined by other religious leaders, who may not share the church's strict stance on contraception but said they agree the mandate is a serious infringement on religious liberty.
Catholic charities, universities, dioceses and business owners are among the more than 200 plaintiffs that have sued the government over the mandate, claiming it violates their religious freedom. None of the plaintiffs is a Catholic hospital.
The CHA statement acknowledges its assessment of the mandate doesn't square with others, including the Bishops' Conference.
"We also recognize that this resolution has not been what some organizations, including the Bishops' Conference, asked for on behalf of a wider group," CHA said. "Our contribution to the process has been to work for the protection of religious organizations, especially our members. We recognize the broader issues will continue to be debated and litigated by others."
The National Catholic Register interviewed attorneys involved in the cases who don't think the CHA's position would have any bearing on the pending cases.
But Douglas Laycock, a legal scholar on religious liberty at the University of Virginia, told the NCR that the CHA could impact the legal battles indirectly.
“Public opinion is influenced by it, and sometimes judges are influenced by it,” said Laycock. “If a judge is inclined to think that the burden here is modest and attenuated, he may be reinforced in that view by the fact that some institutions find it acceptable.”
This isn't the first time the CHA, the largest nonprofit health care provider in the nation, has gone against the church's hierarchy over health care reform. It joined other prominent Catholics in defying the bishops to support passage of the Affordable Care Act at a critical stage of the congressional debate.
The CHA has had concerns about what defines a religious employer and what kind of precedent the mandate would set for those employers who had moral objections to providing certain types of health care under their insurance plans. The association says the latest offer from the administration satisfies those concerns.
“If you look at the final regulations it is very clear that we do not have to contract for, or pay for, or arrange for” contraception coverage, Sister Carol Keehan, head of the CHA, told Religion News Service.
“It was really important that this be workable from a legal and theological perspective,” she added. “That’s what we believe we have achieved.
"HHS has now established an accommodation that will allow our ministries to continue offering health insurance plans for their employees as they have always done."
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the bishops, told The Associated Press that the hospital association had notified the Bishops' Conference about its stand late Monday.
Walsh said the bishops "did not contribute to the (group's) analysis or the statement itself."
Bloggers are lining up behind the CHA and the bishops in this latest split between the two groups.
"These antagonistic politics run against dialog with the world as fostered by Pope Francis. Worse yet, they present little to alter a growing public opinion that today’s USCCB leadership act like partisan CEOs from the secular world rather than pastors," wrote Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo in The Washington Post. He accused the bishops of waging a "bogus holy war" against Obama.
Meanwhile, Father Martin Fox expressed exasperation at the CHA backing the administration at every critical turn in the health care debate.
"So here we are. For whatever reason, Sister Keehan and the CHA have decided — in a showdown between the bishops and the Obama administration — to sidle up beside President Obama," Fox wrote. "And, more importantly, the CHA is simply wrong. Wrong to buck the bishops; and wrong on the substance."
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