WASHINGTON, D.C., AUG. 31, 2011 (Zenit.org).- The U.S. bishops are objecting to a Health and Human Services mandate that will force private insurance plans to cover abortions and sterilizations, with an exemption for religions so narrow that not even Jesus would qualify.

In a statement to the HHS today, Anthony Picarello, USCCB general counsel, and Michael Moses, associate general counsel, called the mandate an "unprecedented attack on religious liberty."

The mandate would force private insurance plans to cover contraception -- including abortifacients -- and sterilization.

And the narrow "religious employer" exception provides "no protection at all for individuals or insurers with a moral or religious objection to contraceptives or sterilization," instead covering only "a very small subset of religious employers," the bishops' representatives declared.

The exemption "is narrower than any conscience clause ever enacted in federal law, and narrower than the vast majority of religious exemptions from state contraceptive mandates," wrote Picarello and Moses. "By failing to protect insurers, individuals, most employers, or any other stakeholders with a religious objection to such items and procedures, the HHS exemption, like the mandate itself, violates" the U.S. Constitution and various federal statutes.

"Until now, no federal law has prevented private insurers from accommodating purchasers and plan sponsors with moral or religious objections to certain services," they wrote. "Plans were free under federal law to accommodate those objections by allowing purchasers to choose not to buy coverage for gender change surgery, contraceptives, in vitro fertilization, or other procedures that the purchaser or sponsor found religiously or morally problematic. Likewise, federal law did not forbid any insurer, such as a religiously-affiliated insurer, to exclude from its plans any services to which the insurer itself had a moral or religious objection. Indeed, the freedom to exclude morally objectionable services has sometimes been stated affirmatively in federal law."

Under the mandate this will end and religious employers that do not meet the HHS definition will also be subject to the mandate. 

The bishops' representatives explained that according to the mandate, a church is not a religious employer if it (a) serves those who are not already members of the church, (b) fails to hire based on religion, or (c) does not restrict its charitable and missionary purposes to the inculcation of religious values. 

"Under such inexplicably narrow criteria -- criteria bearing no reasonable relation to any legitimate (let alone compelling) government purpose -- even the ministry of Jesus and the early Christian Church would not qualify as 'religious,' because they did not confine their ministry to their co-religionists or engage only in a preaching ministry," the statement notes. "In effect, the exemption is directly at odds with the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which Jesus teaches concern and assistance for those in need, regardless of faith differences."

Though Picarello and Moses specifically decried the exemption, they affirmed that the fundamental problem is with the mandate itself: "Only rescission will eliminate all of the serious moral problems the mandate creates."

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Full comment: www.usccb.org/about/general-counsel/rulemaking/upload/comments-to-hhs-on-preventive-services-2011-08.pdf