Franciscan University Stands Ground Against Contraception Mandate

Drops Insurance Coverage Requirement for Students

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By Junno Arocho

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio, MAY 24, 2012 ( One of the major social issues facing Catholics in the United States is the government mandate that would require employers to provide insurance coverage for contraception, abortifacients and sterilization.

The exception for religious institutions in the mandate are so narrow that the vast majority of institutions — hospitals, schools, and charities — would not qualify. (The administration revised its policy to have insurance companies and not religious institutions, provide contraceptives.) Most organizations believe this “accommodation” to be nothing more than an accounting gimmick.

Catholic universities would not fall under the «accommodations» made by the current administration if they allow non-Catholic students to study at their institution. Therefore, as the rule stands, they must comply with it by August 2013.

In a move that has been praised and criticized, Franciscan University of Steubenville has decided to drop the insurance coverage requirement for its students. The decision would affect the 200 students out of a student body of 2,500 who were on the university-sponsored health plan. A low cost plan was required for students who were not covered by their parents plan.

Franciscan University is also among the 43 organizations that have sued the Obama administration over the mandate, considering it a violation of religious freedom.

Michael Hernon, vice president of Advancement for Franciscan University, spoke with ZENIT about the university’s decision and its opposition to providing a service that would contradict their beliefs.

ZENIT: Franciscan University recently dropped a requirement for health insurance coverage for students only. What prompted that decision?

Hernon: It was based on two factors: one was the looming HHS mandate that was going to require us to cover immoral services, things that go against our deeply held religious beliefs. Then in March we found out that because of the Affordable Care Act, the premiums our students pay would be doubled this coming year and likely tripled in the year ahead, and even more in the future.

So when you combine both the moral and economic concern, it seemed like we were backed into a corner and forced to make this decision.

ZENIT: And how have the students reacted to this decision?

Hernon: When the announcement went out in mid-April to the students and to the parents, we received nothing but positive comments from them. Since this story has become national news, we have been flooded with alumni benefactors, even people who don’t know Franciscan University or who are not even necessarily Catholic saying that they support what we’re doing, that we need to stand up for our convictions and we received a lot of generous support; a lot of people coming out to support the university, which has been wonderful.

ZENIT: Has anybody been negative toward the university or have you received any persecution for this new policy?.

Hernon: We sure have. We’ve heard from a number of folks who, folks that had gripes with the Catholic Church in general. And they think we’re somehow forcing people to change their private lives to accommodate us. You know, the false charge of the «war on women.»

But those are definitely outweighed substantially by the positive comments. Plenty of people on Huffington Post and some different blog sites have been attacking us. You’re known by both your friends and your enemies, I guess. We are happy to be a passionately Catholic university and we’ll take all that comes with that.

We’re not going to back down in any shape, fashion or form. Now or any time in the future. We stand with our students and we think that this decision of government is hurting our students. We’re going to do everything we can to fight it back and hopefully change this in our future.

ZENIT: Are there any alternatives that you will be offering students to help them, as far as helping them with health care services?

Hernon: Yes. First and foremost we have a health care clinic here on campus that doesn’t require insurance and is essentially free with a $5 payment. All the basic services that students would need, from prescriptions and basic medical care can be handled there. The challenge would be for those who need special care, x-rays or specialists. We are encouraging them to pursue other options in the market for health insurance. We still advise them that it is worth pursuing, we just no longer felt that we could require it.

The part of the story that wasn’t always told in the media is that all we really did was lift the requirement that students had to have health coverage and that we encouraged them to find it on their own. In this tough economy, we couldn’t double the cost for them. The federal government thinks that it’s a good idea, we don’t.

ZENIT: It seems that with the recently announced visit of Kathleen Sebelius to Georgetown University and the issue of insurance coverage at Franciscan University that the HHS mandate has affected university students especially. Its good to see that people, especially Catholic universities are standing their ground in their faith.

Hernon: One thing I would like to throw in. We had our commencement ceremonies this past weekend. And our main commencement speaker was the former director of the CIA, General Michael Hayden. He brought up the issue specifically and said that as Catholics, we need to stand up in the face of public opposition, that life begins at conception, and that we have the religious liberty in this country to practice our faith, regardless of what the Secretary of Health and Human Services said.

The entire audience, more than 2,000 people, gave him a standing ovation for this. So it’s very much in the hearts and minds of our community and it’s very much with others as well, even leaders like this in the intelligence community. So it’s a real substantial issue for us, and all Americans.

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