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Catholic Church Still Studying New HHS Proposals

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WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Catholic institutions were still analyzing the effect of a new set of proposed rules on insurance coverage of contraceptives issued by the Department of Health and Human Services.

The 80-page document released Feb. 1, 2013, by HHS attempts to address objections that the previous rules would force religious employers to stop providing employee health insurance because the federal requirement to include contraceptive coverage violates their religious beliefs.

Four days after the proposed rules were released, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Catholic Health Association were still studying the details of the proposal before rendering opinions on the changes. The thousands of dioceses, parishes, charities and medical organizations that look to the USCCB and the CHA for guidance were biding their time as well.

A statement Feb. 1 from Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, president of the USCCB, said the bishops "welcome the opportunity to study the proposed regulations closely. We look forward to issuing a more detailed statement later."

Mercy Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the USCCB, told CNS Feb. 5 that "we need a thorough understanding" of the proposed changes before a position is announced.

The CHA likewise issued a statement saying it would provide an analysis once the regulations were evaluated.

Some entities were quick to issue opinions on the rules, which are open for a 60-day comment period. The rules are expected to be finalized this summer.

Critics of the proposed rules included the Becket Fund, a nonprofit, public interest law firm that represents several nonprofit and for-profit organizations in their lawsuits against the federal government, which challenge the requirement of the Affordable Care Act.

"Today's proposed rule does nothing to protect the religious freedom of millions of Americans," said a Feb. 1 statement from Kyle Duncan, Becket Fund general counsel.

The Becket Fund also represents the Eternal Word Television Network and several religiously run institutions of higher education including Ave Maria University, Belmont Abbey College, Colorado Christian University, East Texas Baptist University, Houston Baptist University and Wheaton College.

The new proposals specifically said no nonprofit religious institution -- including churches, universities, hospitals and charities -- will have to "arrange, contract, pay for or refer for" contraception insurance for employees or students who want it.

But Duncan's statement said the new proposal "does not meaningfully expand the 'church-only' exemption -- which is the real relief that our clients are entitled to under our Constitution."

By Patricia Zapor Catholic News Service