(CNSNews.com) - In an "urgent" call to action distributed as a bulletin insert at Catholic churches across the country on Sunday, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said that a new federal regulation proposed under President Barack Obama's health-care law "poses an unprecedented threat to individual and institutional religious freedom."
The proposed regulation would require all private health-care plans to cover sterilizations and "all FDA-approved contraceptives"--which include "emergency" contraceptives such as ulipristal (or "Ella") that can cause an abortion both before and after an embryo implants in the mother's womb.
The bulletin insert asked Catholics to visit a page on the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (U.S.C.C.B.) from which they could send an email message to the Department of Health and Human Services protesting the proposed regulation.
The regulation is undergoing a standard public comment period that will end this Friday.
The U.S.C.C.B. webpage that the bishops urged Catholics to visit includes a copy of the comments the bishops themselves have submitted to HHS.
These comments, signed by the U.S.C.C.B.'s general counsel, are a systematically argued counter-attack on what the bishops say is an unconstitutional assault on the free exercise of religion that especially targets the Catholic church, which is well known for its moral opposition not only to abortion but also, uniquely, to artificial birth control.
In their comments, the bishops say that the regulation proposed by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Aug. 1 is "an unprecedented attack on religious liberty" and that even Jesus would not qualify as "religious" under the proposed regulation's "religious exemption."
[Sebelius, a Catholic and former governor of Kansas, has been barred from taking communion by the archbishop of Kansas City, Kan., until she publicly repudiates her support for legalized abortion and goes to confession.]
"Indeed, such nationwide government coercion of religious people and groups to sell, broker, or purchase 'services' to which they have a moral or religious objection represents an unprecedented attack on religious liberty," the bishops told HHS in their comments on the regulation.
The bishops point out that the "religious exemption" proposed in the regulation holds that a church organization 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 this rubric, the bishops said, HHS would have to rule that Jesus Christ did not qualify for a religious exemption.
"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," said the bishops. "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."
Under the regulation, the bishops said, Catholic hospitals, Catholic charitable institutions, and Catholic universities and colleges would be forced to choose between dropping all health-care coverage for their workers or paying for health-care services that violate the teachings of the church.
Beyond that, the bishops said, the proposed regulation violates the freedom of conscience of individuals and private insurance companies that believe paying for or purchasing sterilizations and contraceptives is wrong.
"Individuals with a moral or religious objection to these items and procedures will now be affirmatively barred by the HHS mandate from purchasing a plan that excludes those items," said the bishops. "Religiously-affiliated insurers with a moral or religious objection likewise will be affirmatively barred from offering a plan that excludes them to the public, even to members of their own religion. Secular organizations (insurers, employers, and other plan sponsors) with a moral or religious objection to coverage of contraceptives or sterilization will be ineligible for the exemption."
The bishops explained in their comments to HHS why they believe the proposed regulation "targets Catholicism for special disfavor" and thus violates the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of religion.
"Before the mandate, insurers were free to issue plans covering contraception and sterilization (or not); employers were free to sponsor, and usually subsidize, plans with this coverage (or not); and employees were free to choose this coverage and pay for it through their premiums (or not)," said the bishops.
"As a result of this freedom, not only was religious conviction accommodated among all these stakeholders, but coverage for contraception and sterilization was very widespread," said the bishops. "HHS would nonetheless force those few who would object to selling, buying, or brokering the coverage to do so. In other words, the class that suffers under the mandate is defined precisely by their beliefs in objecting to these 'services.'
"Moral opposition to all artificial contraception and sterilization is a minority and unpopular belief, and its virtually exclusive association with the Catholic Church is no secret," said the bishops. "Thus, although the mandate does not expressly target Catholicism, it does so implicitly by imposing burdens on conscience that are well known to fall almost entirely on observant Catholics--whether employees, employers, or insurers. Such religious discrimination is forbidden by both the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment."