The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is urging Congress to support legislation that would allow the church and others to opt-out of providing contraception in health care insurance exchanges created through the Affordable Care Act.

The Florida Catholic Conference has promoted a U.S. Conference press release on its website that pleads with Congress to move forward with the “Respect for Rights of Conscience Act.” This bill would provide a way for the church to receive federal funds through health care exchanges created by federal health care reform but would allow the church to be exempt from following a recent recommendation made by the Institute of Medicine that places birth control on a list of preventative health care services.

The U.S. Conference previously released a statement asking lawmakers to dismiss that recommendation. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the chairman of the conference’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, said he “strongly opposes” mandated coverage of services such as “surgical sterilization … all FDA-approved birth control … and ‘education and counseling’ promoting these among all ‘women of reproductive capacity.’”

If the Department of Health and Human Services decides to move forward with the Institute of Medicine recommendations, insurance providers would be required to provide birth control with no co-payments.

In the U.S. Conference’s most recent press release, DiNardo asks Congress to respond to this move by supporting House Bill 1179, the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act of 2011.

DiNardo says this legislation “would prevent any new mandates under health care reform from being used to disregard Americans’ freedom of conscience.”

“Those who sponsor, purchase, and issue health plans should not be forced to violate their deeply held moral and religious convictions in order to take part in the health care system or provide for the needs of their families or their employees,” wrote DiNardo. “To force such an unacceptable choice would be as much a threat to universal access to health care as it is to freedom of conscience.”

In Florida, the Catholic lobby requested a similar provision in the state’s Medicaid reform legislation. During the debate over the bill, legislators approved an amendment that allows a Medicaid provider to opt out of providing family planning services as a “moral or religious” objector. The legislation passed with this provision; groups are now reaching out to a state agency asking officials to reconsider such a policy.

Catholics for Choice released a statement critical of the U.S. Bishops’ recent request to Congress:

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has been active in seeking to allow some entities to opt out of this no-cost coverage for family planning by seeking to create burdensome conscience clause provisions. Citing the Catholic social justice tradition, the organizations requested that Secretary [Kathleen] Sebelius reject this demand from the US bishops and not “impose burdensome conscience clauses which seek to limit and indeed eliminate access, and dishonor the conscience of those seeking services.”

Most Catholics use modern contraceptives and believe it is a moral choice. Many of these good Catholics wish the hierarchy would respect their decisions, taken in good conscience, about what is best for themselves, as well as for their relationships, families and children. Sadly, the US bishops do not accept or acknowledge this perspective.”

Catholics for Choice President Jon O’Brien previously told The Florida Independent that such efforts by the bishops are “disingenuous.”

“What’s really going on,” he said, “is that they have failed to convince Catholics in their own churches. So, [the bishops] have to go through political lobbying to stop Catholics from using contraception.”

It is ultimately up to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius whether the Institute of Medicine’s recommendation moves forward.

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