The proposed religious exemption to the federal mandate that health insurance plans cover contraceptives and sterilization is "wholly inadequate to protect the conscience rights of Catholic hospital and health care organizations," the head of the Catholic Health Association told the Department of Health and Human Services.Daughter of Charity Sister Carol Keehan, CHA president and CEO, proposed in Sept. 23 comments to HHS that the definition of a religious employer be adapted to one contained in the Internal Revenue Code, which says an organization is "associated with a church if it shares common religious bonds and convictions with the church."Instead, the HHS proposal defines a religious organization that could be exempt from the mandate as one that meets four criteria — "(1) has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose; (2) primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets; (3) primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets; and (4) is a nonprofit organization" under specific sections of the Internal Revenue Code.That definition has drawn criticism from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services and other Catholic groups. HHS was accepting comments on the proposed religious exemption until Sept. 30.The exemption would apply to a requirement under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that health insurers cover sterilization and the full gamut of contraceptives approved by the Food and Drug Administration without deductible or co-payment as part of preventive health care for women.Sister Keehan said government acknowledgment of conscience rights goes back to the nation's beginnings.She quoted from an 1804 letter from President Thomas Jefferson to French Ursuline nuns ministering in New Orleans, reassuring them that they could govern themselves by their own rules, "without interference from the civil authority.""Whatever diversity of shade may appear in the religious opinions of our fellow citizens, the charitable objects of your institution cannot be indifferent to any," he added."Jefferson's promise to the Ursuline sisters that their work could continue according to their own rules is reflected now in the many federal and state laws protecting individuals and organizations from being required to participate in, pay for or provide coverage for certain services that are contrary to their religious beliefs or moral convictions," Sister Keehan said."Requiring our members to cover contraceptive services, including sterilization and drugs with an abortifacient effect, would put them in an untenable situation," she added.The CHA leader also argued that the proposed exemption "does not reflect the current approach followed in the states," as HHS had claimed, but "instead attempts for the first time to force religious organizations to violate their conscience and provide coverage for items and services they believe to be morally objectionable."She noted that CHA "has long insisted on and worked for the right of everyone to affordable, accessible health care" and supported enactment of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.But she faulted the proposed religious exemption for its failure to reflect the fact that Catholic organizations serve "persons of all ages, races and religious faiths, ... regardless of their faith or lack of faith.""Men and women of any or no faith who are willing to serve with us in a manner faithful to the teachings of the Catholic Church are welcome to join us as colleagues and employees," Sister Keehan said. "We communicate our religious values through our deeds and our actions."She also said the proposed religious exemption "raises serious constitutional questions" by attempting to define whether an organization is "sufficiently religious" to warrant the exemption."The government is unconstitutionally parsing a bona fide religious organization into 'secular' and 'religious' components solely to impose burdens on the secular portion," Sister Keehan said. "This is particularly problematic as Catholic teaching calls our members to serve those in need and the most vulnerable regardless of their faith."Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services also protested the proposed rule, urging HHS to "bring it in line with other federal laws in fully respecting the First Amendment dictum that Congress shall make no law 'prohibiting the free exercise' of religion.""The administration's brazen attempt to attach the binding strings of its secularist agenda to something as basic as health insurance constitutes an unprecedented threat to individual and institutional religious freedom," he said in a Sept. 23 statement.—CNS