Pa.'s bishops speak out on HHS mandate

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School choice also is focus of statement

HARRISBURG -- The Catholic bishops of Pennsylvania have reaffirmed their strong opposition to the mandate issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that they say would violate religious freedom and force private insurance plans to cover contraception -- including abortifacients -- and sterilization. (Also see story on Page 1 and Editorial on Page 4.)

The very narrow definition of "religious employer" would not apply to health insurance plans for Catholic hospitals, colleges or universities, social service agencies and religious orders that employ lay persons and other church ministries, the bishops said.

The bishops on Sept. 28 endorsed the comments already submitted by the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Pennsylvania Catholic Health Association, and urged others concerned about religious liberty to also voice their objections to HHS and Congress.

The PCC is the public affairs arm of the state's Catholic bishops and dioceses. There are 10 Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania, comprised of eight Latin-rite and two Byzantine-rite. The PCHA is a statewide organization of Catholic hospitals, long-term care facilities, multi-facility health systems and other related health care entities, sponsoring religious congregations and dioceses. The organization offers a forum for communication and advocacy within the state's Catholic health care ministry and provides expert advice on public policy and other health care matters to the PCC.

"Within the dioceses are over 3.2 million Catholics; over 1,000 parishes; nearly 500 Catholic schools; 27 Catholic colleges; nearly 100 Catholic social service agencies; 14 Catholic hospitals; 34 long-term care facilities, numerous health care systems and other related health care entities; and over 6,000 women and men religious," the bishops' comments to HHS said. "The interim rule is one of significant impact upon the church in Pennsylvania and that impact will not go unnoticed within the vast Catholic community.

The bishops were meeting in Harrisburg for the annual board of governors meeting of the PCC.

They also issued a statement in support of legislative efforts to create a school voucher program and increase the already successful Educational Improvement Tax Credit program.

"School choice is the right choice for Pennsylvania's families," the statement said.

The bishops said they believed school choice is "a defining social justice issue of our society. Legislation currently being considered in Harrisburg could herald a new, more just era for education in Pennsylvania -- an era in which we focus on the ideal educational environment for each student, not on a mandatory system in which students are assigned to a school based solely on geographic location, they said. The current treatment of these children, particularly children from low-income families, is unjust and inequitable," the bishops said.

The bishops called upon the Catholic community to visit, call, write or send an e-mail message through the Pennsylvania Catholic Advocacy Network to their elected officials urging them to pass the bill.

As the bishops gathered at St. Patrick Cathedral in Harrisburg Sept. 27 to concelebrate Mass for those who serve in public office, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia told Catholic elected officials that God has given them a mission.

The bishops of the province of Pennsylvania, the PCC and the State Council of the Knights of Columbus organized the Mass, which took place in conjunction with the bishops' board of governors' meeting. The following morning, the bishops gathered with state legislators for a breakfast sponsored by the Knights and the PCC.

Jen Reed of the Catholic Witness in Harrisburg contributed to this report.