What happened to freedom of religion? Print
Written by Mary C. Uhler, editor   
Thursday, Nov. 19, 2009 -- 1:00 AM

Insurance law mandates contraceptive coverage

One of the recent set-backs in religious freedom has occurred in the state of Wisconsin (and in 24 other states) with a provision in the new state budget requiring providers of health insurance to include contraceptive services as a “mandated benefit.”

This mandate forces the Catholic Church to provide coverage of contraceptives for its diocesan, parish, and agency employees if it buys health insurance, even though Catholic teaching says that contraceptives are gravely immoral. Self-insured dioceses are not covered by this mandate.

The Catholic bishops of Wisconsin through their public policy arm, the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, asked the state legislature to offer an option for religious groups to exercise their freedom of conscience. Such a provision was not included in the legislation which was signed into law.

Violates religious values and rights

The state bishops issued a statement after the law was passed. They said, “As Catholic teachers and pastors, we strongly object to this blatant insensitivity to our moral values and legal rights. Other states have similar requirements to include contraceptive services as a mandated benefit. Wisconsin, however, is now one of only a few states where the mandate fails to accommodate those whose religious or moral values are compromised by it.

“This mandate violates not only our religious values, but also our constitutional rights,” asserted the bishops. “The constitutional right to religious freedom embraces more than just the right to hold private beliefs and affirm personal values. Such freedom also includes the ability to bear public witness to our values — by what we do and what we decline to do.”

Options to deal with the law

Should no other resolution to this mandate be found, the only way for the Catholic Church in Wisconsin to avoid the mandate is to offer self-funded health plans. The Dioceses of La Crosse and Superior already have self-funded plans; however, the Dioceses of Green Bay and Madison and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee do not.

The new law goes into effect January  1, 2010, or whenever an insurance contract is renewed. The Madison diocese’s current medical plans expire on July 31, 2010. If the diocese moves to a self-insurance plan, it will likely mean increased costs. Self-insured plans usually do not have access to the same level of discounts from providers and are more expensive to administer. For about 640 employees in the Diocese of Madison (including Catholic school teachers, parish staffs, and diocesan staff), this might mean higher costs and lower benefits. This will hurt employees at a time when there are already severe economic challenges.

The Catholic bishops have committed themselves to providing affordable access to quality health care for all Church workers. However, the bishops cannot compromise the teachings of the Catholic faith in providing such health care.

How citizens can help

Concerned citizens can help by contacting their state representatives and senators urging them to pass a conscience exemption which would protect the values of the Catholic Church. If this doesn’t happen, the Church will be forced to offer insurance plans which will mean greater sacrifices for the Church’s employers and employees.

We can’t sit on the sidelines and watch our freedom of religion continue to erode. As Bishop Robert C. Morlino told diocesan staff members recently, “Our religious freedom is under assault. We have to pray, be courageous, and speak out.” Let’s join our bishop in standing up for our religious beliefs in the public arena.