President Barack Obama's health care overhaul should be changed so that religious schools such as the University of Notre Dame aren't required to go against their beliefs and provide birth control to students and employees, the school president says.
The Rev. John Jenkins wrote a letter Wednesday to Kathleen Sebelius asking the Obama administration to broaden the definition of religious employer currently under consideration to ensure the school can continue its provide health care without going against the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. He said the change in definition of religious employer is far narrower than current law and would require Notre Dame and other Catholic universities to offer prescription contraceptives and sterilization services to students and employees through health care plans.
"This would compel Notre Dame to either pay for contraception and sterilization in violation of the church's moral teaching, or to discontinue our employee and student health care plans in violation of the church's social teaching. It is an impossible position," he wrote.
A panel of health experts advising the administration last month recommended that the government require health insurance companies to cover birth control for women as preventive care, without copayments. The Health and Human Services Department asked for public comment on its proposed conscience clause. Jenkins was writing in response to that request.
Jenkins, who was criticized by dozens of bishops for inviting President Barack Obama to speak at commencement, noted that during Obama's commencement speech at Notre Dame in May 2009 he said he favored "a sensible conscience clause." Obama said the clause would give anti-abortion health care providers the right to refuse to perform the procedure.
Jenkins said the proposed change in law "runs contrary to a 40-year history of federal conscience statutes" and doesn't reflect the sensible approach Obama talked about in his speech at Notre Dame.
Jenkins urged Sebelius to change the definition of religious employer to the one used by the Internal Revenue Service, which considers whether an organization or institution shares common religious bonds and convictions with a church.
"This definition more adequately defines religious employers to include all organizations that work in ministries of the church," he wrote.
Betty Cockrum, Planned Parenthood of Indiana president and CEO, said that covering birth control without copays is one of the most important steps in preventing unintended pregnancy.
"That's why Planned Parenthood will continue to work hard to ensure that all women, regardless of their employer or insurer, have access to the health care they need, including affordable birth control," she said.
The Rev. John Jenkins' letter:
Tom Coyne can be reached at http://twitter.com/TomCoyneAP