By Paula Katinas
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN — The Catholic Church being forced to pay for abortions? It could happen, according to concerned church members.
Charging that the Obama administration has declared war on their church, some Brooklyn Catholics are mobilizing to fight a directive in the federal health care law that would require religious institutions to provide insurance coverage for abortion, contraception, sterilization and other procedures the church finds objectionable.
Catholics who attended masses at churches across the borough on Sunday heard their priests read aloud a letter from Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio urging them to contact their elected officials and push for a reversal of the mandate. DiMarzio also suggested that Catholics contact New York senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and urge them to vote for a Senate bill that would allow the Catholic Church and other religious denominations to be exempt from the health insurance directive.
The Rev. Michael Louis Gelfant, pastor of Saint Finbar Church in Bensonhurst, who read the letter to his parishioners at each of the masses he served, said the directive from the Obama administration is deeply troubling. “This is the federal government telling you to go against your beliefs,” he said.
At issue is a little-known provision in the Patient Care and Affordability Act, the health care law signed by President Barack Obama in 2010. The provision requires employers to include “preventive health services” in their health insurance policies for employees.
At the time of the law’s passage, “preventive health services” was not defined. It was agreed by the administration and Congress that the term would be defined at a later date.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the agency enforcing the health care law, ruled in August that “preventive health services” included abortion, contraception and sterilization.
The Catholic Church forbids such procedures for its members.
HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced that churches would be exempt from the directive.
But institutions run by the Catholic Church, such as schools, hospitals and charities, are not exempt, meaning that they must provide coverage for these procedures. The administration ruled that since those institutions also employ non-Catholics, the church does not have a right to impose its belief system on them.
In other words, the church would not have to cover a parish secretary’s birth control pills, but the church would be required to provide coverage for a nurse who works in a Catholic hospital.
If the church does not offer the employee health insurance coverage, it would face major fines under the health care law.
The Obama administration is giving the church until Aug. 1, 2013, to comply with the controversial directive.
“We find it sad that the administration is taking a hostile tact,” said the Rev. Msgr. Kieran Harrington, vicar of communications for the Diocese of Brooklyn. “We were hoping to carve out a wider exemption,” he said.
The directive violates the First Amendment, according to Harrington. “The First Amendment guarantees freedom of worship. But it should also mean freedom to follow your conscience,” he said.
Dan Texeira, president of the Parish Pastoral Planning Council at St. Anselm Church in Bay Ridge, said the federal government “is trying to force Catholics to violate their conscience.”
The only thing Catholics can do “is to continue to fight it,” Texeira said.
U.S. Rep. Bob Turner (R-Southeast Brooklyn-Queens) said he objects to the directive. “Every person of faith, regardless of their religion, should be greatly concerned about this health care mandate, which will force nonprofit religious organizations to provide insurance coverage that is contrary to their beliefs,” said Turner, who is Catholic.
Officials from HHS did not return phone calls. In an op-ed piece in USA Today on Jan. 30, Sebelius wrote that 28 states already require employers to provide health care coverage that includes coverage for contraception. She also noted that the directive does not force a doctor to write prescriptions for contraception medications if he or she objects to doing so on religious grounds.
Where does all of this leave the Catholic Church? Legal experts with ties to the church said the church has a tough choice to make. It can refuse to provide the medical coverage and risk paying a fine, or look the other way and provide coverage for medical procedures that go against its teachings.
Harrington said he thinks it won’t come to such a choice. “I think the president will reverse himself on this. There are 60 million Catholics in this country. He won the Catholic vote in the 2008 election,” he said.
Texeira isn’t as optimistic.
“I don’t see Obama changing his position on this,” he said.