BANGOR, Maine — Bishop Richard J. Malone on Friday called President Barack Obama’s announcement that religious employers would not have to provide free birth control coverage under his health care plan a step in the right direction, but stopped short of endorsing it.
“Today’s decision to revise how individuals obtain services that are morally objectionable to religious entities and people of faith is a first step in the right direction,” Malone, head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, said in an interview at St. John Catholic Church in Bangor. “We hope that through ongoing dialogue, with the Catholic Church and others who have expressed concern, the Obama administration will ensure that Americans’ religious liberties are respected by the government. That being said, religious liberty, as guaranteed by the First Amendment, may need to be reinforced through further legislation.”
Malone’s statement was similar to one released by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington.
“While there may be an openness to respond to some of our concerns, we reserve judgment on the details until we have them,” Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, the conference’s president, said in a press release.
The controversy that has swirled since Jan. 20 — when what appeared to be the Obama administration’s final rule on the matter was announced — has been about much more than birth control, Malone said Friday. The objections have focused on the religious liberty guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“We see this as really an invasion into the life and ministry of the church,” Malone said. “This country was founded on the principle of religious freedom. We see this as a violation of that religious freedom.”
Whether Catholic women use birth control or have access to birth control also was not the issue, the bishop said.
“The rights of conscience — that was the major concern,” he said. “That and having to pay for and therefore allow certain services we would consider immoral. We are being forced into doing something against our teaching and our conscience.”
The bishop said that this weekend, priests were expected to urge parishioners to call members of Maine’s congressional delegation and seek support for bills that would have reversed the earlier rule. Malone said that could change if the bishops conference issues a new statement before Saturday afternoon, when the first Masses of the weekend are held.
Health care itself is a universal human right under Catholic teaching, he said.
Under the new policy, religious employers will not be required to offer contraception and will not have to refer their employees to places that provide it, according to information released by the White House. If such an employer opts out, the employer’s insurance company must provide birth control for free in a separate arrangement with workers who want it.
The change will still take effect in August 2013 — with an extra year built in for religious employers.
Twenty-eight states, including Maine, already required health insurance plans to cover birth control before the federal regulations were issued. They offered different exemptions for religious employers.
Obama’s health care law requires most insurance plans to cover women’s preventative services, without a co-pay, starting on Aug. 1, 2012. Those services include well-women visits, domestic violence screening and contraception, all designed to encourage health care that many women may otherwise find unaffordable.
Catholics weren’t the only faith group unhappy with the original rule. The Southern Baptist Conference, evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews were among those who felt the faith exemption should be broadened. Other faith traditions, such as the United Methodist Church, supported the original mandate and did not believe it infringed on religious freedom.
Republican U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe and 2nd District Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud all signed on as co-sponsors of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which would have reversed the previous ruling. The Senate and House versions of that initiative appeared to be up in the air Friday after Obama’s announcement.
Maine groups that had been supportive of the original rule nonetheless praised Obama’s about-face on Friday.
“The Family Planning Association of Maine wholeheartedly agrees with President Obama that every woman should be in control of the decisions that affect her own health, including decisions around accessing and paying for birth control,” said Kathleen Brogan, the group’s vice president for public affairs. “With today’s decision, the White House has wisely taken control of this access out of the hands of religious institutions and has put it more directly into the hands of women.”
Zachary Heiden, legal director at the ACLU of Maine, agreed.
“Everyone in this country has freedom of religion, but nobody has the right to use their religion to make decisions for other people,” he said Friday in an email statement. “It is hard to understand how something that ninety-nine percent of women use is considered ‘controversial,’ but the new rules from the White House should put any controversy to rest.”
Snowe, Collins, Michaud and 1st District Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree all praised the president’s actions.
“It appears that changes have been made that provide women’s health services without compelling Catholic organizations in particular to violate the beliefs and tenets of their faith,” Snowe said. “According to the Catholic Health Association, the administration ‘responded to the issues [they] identified that needed to be fixed,’ which is what I urged the president to do in addressing this situation.”
Collins, who is a Catholic, called Obama’s announcement “a step in the right direction.
“The administration’s original plan was deeply flawed and clearly would have posed a threat to religious freedom,” she said. “It presented the Catholic Church with its wide-ranging social, educational, and health care services, and many other faith-based organizations, with an impossible choice between violating their religious beliefs or violating federal regulations.”
Pingree on Thursday had urged Obama not to back down. A day later, she praised him.
“This is a good compromise that serves the public health,” she said. “If a religious-affiliated organization like a hospital or university doesn’t want to provide birth control coverage, they can take themselves out of the equation, but the insurance company will have to step in to make sure women still have access to no-cost coverage.”
Michaud, who also is a Catholic, agreed.
“I have always been a strong proponent of family planning services because of their importance to women’s health. The initial ruling, however, was an issue of religious freedom,” he said. “I am pleased that after hearing the input of religious communities some of these concerns have been addressed, and I look forward to working with all affected groups as the changes are implemented.”
More than half the states in the nation, including Maine, have a law or insurance regulation that covers contraceptives but includes a religious exemption.
The law in Maine has been in effect since 1999. It has an exemption for churches and religious organizations such as the diocese and religiously affiliated preschool and K-12 schools. It does not exempt religiously affiliated hospitals or religiously affiliated colleges and universities.
It could not be determined late Friday if the new federal rule or state law would be applied to religious institutions.