Even as New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan urged the Obama administration to back down on its mandate that would require all employee health plans to pay for contraception and sterilization, New Dorp-based Priests for Life announced today that it will go to court to seek an injunction against the policy.
But the White House may already be bowing to the pressure from religious groups, as it hinted today at compromise, according to The Associated Press.
Archbishop Dolan, a cardinal designate and the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, expressed his disappointment with the mandate and implied that the president reneged on a promise. Archbishop Dolan said President Obama told him late last year in the Oval Office that the White House would work with the Catholic Church on health care and other issues.
Not just faith-based institutions, but all employers on Staten Island and throughout the nation who offer health insurance to their employees would be affected by the mandate, said the Rev. Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life. His group is suing as an employer rather than a religious institution.
The policy allows an exemption if a religious employer "has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose," "primarily employs persons who share its religious tenets" and "primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets," according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
"Our organization does not qualify for the narrow religious exemption that is in the ruling," said Father Pavone, noting that PFL has 60 employees of diverse religious backgrounds.
Most other religious institutions on Staten Island and throughout the nation employ people of different faiths and thus would be ineligible for exemptions, Father Pavone noted. PFL's outreach is to people of all faiths and to those with no religious affiliation.
"We don't want the Obama administration forcing us to pay for the very type of things that we teach against, preach against and consider harmful and immoral," Father Pavone said.
"Both religious and secular institutions on Staten Island are in the same boat. We hope that our action results in a ruling that this mandate is unconstitutional. We hope that nobody on Staten Island or anywhere else in the country has to abide by it."
PFL will be represented in its suit by prominent civil rights attorney Charles LiMandri of San Diego.
The Roman Catholic schools and other institutions on Staten Island employ and serve non-Catholics, so it seems that none would qualify for the exemption, said Monsignor Thomas Bergin, pastor of St. Charles R.C. Church, Oakwood, and chairman of the new Staten Island Catholic Schools Board. Monsignor Bergin expressed hope that there would be a widening of the exemption.
"It's an intrusion on the First Amendment separation of church and state," said Monsignor Peter Finn, co-vicar of Staten Island and pastor of Blessed Sacrament R.C. Church in West Brighton.
"It's very strange that the president is making that kind of a proposal. It certainly seems to be uncharacteristic of any president's actions in terms of church-state relations since the Constitution was adopted."
Obama's chief spokesman and his top campaign strategist both said the administration was searching for ways to allay the concern of Roman Catholics. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said the policy was a "huge mistake" that the administration should reconsider. "And if they don't, Congress will act," McConnell said, according to The AP.
On the campaign trail, GOP presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich heaped new criticism on the president, with Romney accusing Obama of an "assault on religion" and Gingrich calling the rule an "attack on the Catholic Church."
Obama's spokesman defended the decision that prompted the flare-up, even as he raised the prospect of some adjustment. He said women working for church-affiliated employers must be able to get contraception, but he also made clear that the White House wants to accommodate the concerns of the employers who would be required to provide birth control coverage regardless of their religious beliefs, The AP said.
"There are ways to, I think, help resolve this issue that ensures that we provide that important preventive service, that health care coverage, to all women ... in a way that also tries to allay some of these concerns," press secretary Jay Carney said.
The spokesman did not say what those ways might be but said there were "a lot of different ideas out there."
The comments by Axelrod and others created a sense that the White House's public emphasis has clearly shifted and that further accommodation would be considered. But there was no sign the administration would move to completely withdraw the rule, and it was unclear that the White House could strike the balance of ensuring contraceptive coverage for all while defusing the fierce opposition of some religious groups when those two points are in conflict.
Options for a compromise could include granting leeway for a church-affiliated employer not to cover birth control, provided it referred employees to an insurer who would provide the coverage.
--- Associated Press material was used in this report.