SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- A federal order requiring religious-based employers such as Catholic colleges to provide birth control coverage to female employees starting next year is drawing criticism from Indiana institutions that see it as a violation of religious freedom.
"This is quite a problem for us," Brother John R. Paige, president of Holy Cross College, told the South Bend Tribune (http://bit.ly/ypA9I1 ). "By demanding that we provide contraceptive services, it puts us in direct opposition to our church."
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The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services has ruled that religiously affiliated nonprofit organizations must provide coverage starting on Aug. 1, 2013. The rule states affiliated groups must provide a broad range of services, from implanted contraceptive devices to the morning-after pill.
The birth-control coverage is part of preventive services that most workplace health plans will have to cover free to employees under the federal health care overhaul.
Paige said religious groups had hoped for exceptions on religious grounds and were surprised by the ruling. Holy Cross has at least 60 employees eligible for coverage on its health plan.
"It seems to me that this is a real intrusion of the federal government into something that for us, as Roman Catholics, is a grave moral concern," Paige said. "We have to evaluate our options. I don't know what they are. It's too new."
The University of Notre Dame is calling for national discussions among religious groups, government and the public "to reaffirm our country's historic respect for freedom of conscience and defense of religious liberty," the Rev. John I. Jenkins, the university's president, said in a written statement after the ruling.
Notre Dame's medical plan bars employees from seeking reimbursement for oral contraceptives, contraceptive devices or contraceptive implants, except when specifically requested by a physician based on medical necessity and for purposes other than contraception.
Jenkins called the ruling "profoundly troubling" and said it is an "unnecessary intervention by the government into religion."
The ruling exempts churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship but is expected to apply to other groups, including teachers and employees in Catholic schools.
The Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend has nearly 3,000 employees, more than a third of whom are on the insurance plan.
Fred Everett, assistant to Bishop Kevin Rhoades, said religious leaders may try to work with Congress to expand the definition of exempt groups.
"We are committed to not violating our conscience," he said.