The North Country's Roman Catholic Church leader says he objects to a recent federal ruling that requires most employers to offer health coverage that includes preventive services.
Bishop Terry LaValley of the Ogdensburg Diocese issued a statement to the media this week condemning a Jan. 20 ruling by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that LaValley said "strikes at the fundamental right to religious liberty for all citizens of any faith."
According to LaValley, all employers - including Catholic employers - would be forced to offer health insurance plans that cover "sterilization, abortion-inducing drugs, and contraception" under the Affordable Care Act, dubbed "Obamacare" by its detractors.
"The federal government, which claims to be 'of, by, and for the people,' has just dealt a heavy blow to almost a quarter of those
People - the Catholic population - and to the millions more who are served by the Catholic faithful," LaValley said.
LaValley said that in spite of numerous appeals, the Obama adminstration has refused to broaden religious exemptions. Currently, exemptions apply to groups that hire and serve people of their own faith, LaValley said.
"Consequently, most churches and church-run institutions do not qualify because of their very openness to serving the common good of society and all people regardless of creed," he said.
U.S. Rep. Bill Owens, D-Plattsburgh, said he's heard "some pros and cons" in his office about the ruling. He said it hasn't been a subject that "by any stretch of the imagination has reached a high volume.
"In this instance, the Institute of Medicine determined that there were seven categories of what were essentially considered 'essential preventive health care,'" Owens said. "And this is one of the seven."
Owens said he was concerned about LaValley's reference to sterilization.
"I'm not aware that that's included in there," he said.
The Affordable Care Act, Owens said, aims to cut overall health care costs by encouraging preventive services.
"Clearly, the idea here is really to focus on preventive care; that's the way you're going to bend the cost curve," he said. "I think it's very important that people understand that and focus on that.
"At the same time, in no way do I want to denigrate peoples' beliefs. I respect peoples' beliefs and understand that they may disagree with me, and I certainly agree religious institutions like churches should be exempt."
Owens said he understands that things like contraception don't fall in line with some religious beliefs. But he said the Institute of Medicine has determined that contraception is an important aspect of women's health care.
LaValley said the HHS ruling puts the Catholic Church between a rock and a hard place.
"We Catholics must be prepared either to violate our consciences, or to drop health coverage for our employees (and suffer the penalties for doing so)," he said. "The Administration's sole concession was to give our institutions one year to comply and 'adapt' to this new rule."
The Catholic Church will not comply with the law, LaValley said. That, he added, could result in "dire consequences" for employees of Catholic schools, nursing homes, and charities throughout the Diocese of Ogdensburg.
"Even those who may disagree with the Church's teaching on the sanctity of human life recognize that the government has no business forcing religious institutions to sponsor and pay for procedures which violate those teachings," he said. "People of faith cannot be made second class citizens."
So is Owens open to amending the law to give religious institutions more freedom?
"I think we have to balance the rights of women in this situation," he said. "Many Catholic employers employ non-Catholic people in hospitals and in universities. We're not talking about the churches here; we're talking about institutions that in many respects receive secular dollars and provide services across many religions."
Repeated attempts to reach U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook, for comment were unsuccessful. Messages left for Gibson's spokeswoman, Stephanie Valle, went unreturned as of mid-day Friday.
Contact Chris Morris at 891-2600 ext. 26 or firstname.lastname@example.org.