Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

Bishop’s letter to employees of the diocese on the newly proposed HHS rule

Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes 2013

Dear Friends,

Given the news reports about the most recently proposed rules by the federal government regarding religious exemptions to mandated services required by the Affordable Care Act, I thought it was important to write to you and offer an update and some points of clarification. This is also an opportunity for me to thank all of you who work with such dedication in our parishes, schools and universities, in our hospitals and Catholic Charities. Each and every day you extend the hand of Christ the teacher, healer and pastor to people you serve. We as a Church are better for your service.

Before getting into the specifics of the newly proposed rules issued on February 1, I think it is important to emphasize and clarify a few things that have been lost in the fog of controversy regarding what the Church found objectionable about the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

First, you should know that the Catholic Church has had a longstanding position in favor of comprehensive health care reform that leads to health care for all, including the weakest and most vulnerable. As Pope Benedict XVI reminded us, we have a special obligation in this regard: "It is necessary to work with greater commitment at all levels so that the right to health is rendered effective, favoring access to primary health care” (Message to the 25th International Conference of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, November 15, 2010). Our belief in the dignity of each human person is the basis of our position that health care is not a privilege but a basic human right, for one’s ability to live a fully human life is greatly affected by health.

Second, the objections the bishops raised last year about the Affordable Care Act were about the way the government proposed to grant exemptions to the mandated insurance coverage of services we have long considered morally objectionable. In an action that was unprecedented, the HHS created its own definition of a religious organization for the purpose of determining who would be exempt based on the following criteria.

o the inculcation of religious values is their purpose;
o it primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets;
o it primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets; and,
o it is a non-profit church, integrated auxiliaries, or conventions or associations of churches, or religious order in accord with IRS rules.

During the comment period, the bishops and others submitted suggestions on ways to improve the proposed rules. Our position was that the four-part definition of a religious organization had to be removed, as it defines religious activity in a way that excludes that outreach to the poor, the marginalized and the stranger that Catholicism and virtually all religious communities consider to be a central part of their religious mission. A rule exempting all of our religious institutions had to be made available.

So what is new? On February 1, various agencies of the federal government, including the Internal Revenue Service and the Departments of Treasury, Labor, and Health and Human Services, responded to the feedback they received and issued newly proposed rules. These proposed new rules will require careful study, which the government has invited, along with submitting new comments and suggestions by April 8. A preliminary reading of the new rules indicates that the first three parts of the four-part definition were removed. At the same time, even for those religious organizations that do not fit the IRS definition of “a non-profit church, integrated auxiliaries, or conventions or associations of churches, or religious order”, there is in the proposed HHS rule an alternative pathway of accommodation which appears to allow them to fully exercise their moral objections to providing contraceptives, sterilizations and abortifacients, while not breaking the law.

In many ways this is a positive development, but with documents of such complexity we need to give more and careful study to the details outlined in it.

The bishops of the United States very much want to work out a solution, for we know that real lives and the health of millions of people who work in our various ministries are at stake. We also understand that while we have a responsibility to make sure that any health insurance plan does not force us to provide services that are morally objectionable, we also have a responsibility to find a moral way forward to insure that all of our employees and their families have health care coverage.

In visiting with many of you about the issue of insurance coverage, I know you have been concerned by calls for the Church to shut down her organizations or withdraw health coverage to those who serve in our various institutions as a protest to regulations that may infringe on our religious freedoms. These kinds of scare tactics and worse-case scenario predictions are uncalled for and only unnecessarily disturb the hardworking and dedicated people who are employed by the Church. I am confident that we can find a way forward, and this latest response of the government appears to provide some new openings, which we need to explore and for which we should express appreciation.

It is noteworthy that this past week, Cardinal Dolan, the President of our Bishops’ Conference, felt compelled to offer a clarification following news reports that the bishops rejected the new proposal by the administration. These reports totally ignored his unambiguous and positive statement that “we welcome and will take seriously the Administration’s invitation to submit our concerns through formal comments, and we will do so in the hope that an acceptable solution can be found that respects the consciences of all.”

Admittedly, the removal of the four-part definition, which we requested, has the potential of being a breakthrough moment. This has been our major concern. But, we have to better understand what is involved in granting some Church institutions the exemption outright or by way of accommodation. The critical issue is that we find a moral way forward so that health care coverage can be offered to our employees.

I will continue to study this new language and seek broad input from a variety of sources. We all know from experience that when it comes to intricate moral, legal and public policy issues that we are best served when we hear differing opinions. It will be important in the days ahead for lawyers and staffers of dioceses and the USCCB, of Catholic Charities USA, of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, and of the Catholic Health Association to work together. Whether it is in terms of medicine or law, it is always prudent to seek unbiased second and even third opinions.

Cardinal Dolan has provided a helpful standard in working patiently with government officials, respectful of their competencies, but also forthright in communicating our concerns. We indeed welcome this new proposal, which is the fruit of the collaboration of various government agencies listening to our legitimate concerns. We need now to press forward to a solution, in a way that is respectful and forthright, but which is also aware that the lives and security of those who work for the Church are at stake. You deserve no less from us who serve you.

Sincerely in Christ,

Most Rev. Blase J. Cupich
Bishop of Spokane

+Blase J. Cupich, Bishop of Spokane



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