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Florida priest threatens to cancel employee health insurance as challenge to federal birth control decision

A Catholic priest in St. Petersburg is threatening to cut health insurance benefits from employees as a form of “civil disobedience” to challenge a recent decision by the federal government to include birth control in a list of preventive health care. The decision, which is still being considered before it is finally included, would require all health insurers to provide contraceptive services without co-payments. The decision includes an exemption for religious employers. However, Catholic groups believe that the exemption is “too limited” and would thus require many Catholic groups to provide services that are banned by the Catholic Church.

Catholic bishops and some Catholic groups have been condemning the decision. They have asked that the exemption be open to more objectors, or that the decision be stricken in its entirety.

Now, the St. Petersburg Times reports that if the decision is not changed, Bishop Robert Lynch says ”the Diocese of St. Petersburg would drop health insurance for its approximately 2,300 employees, and instead give them money to find coverage themselves.”

Officials in the diocese believe that they would be one of the groups that would not be included in the exemption.

According to the Times, “Frank Murphy, spokesman for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, said church operations such as Catholic Charities serve people of all faiths. And not all employees are Catholic, including many teachers at diocesan schools.”

The Times reports:

“For the first time in my adult life, I foresee the possibility of some form of civil disobedience, and I am extremely uncomfortable at even the hint of such a thing,” Lynch said during Wednesday’s annual Red Mass at Tampa’s Sacred Heart Church, attended by two dozen judges and about 300 lawyers.

On his blog (blogs.dosp.org/bishoplynch) Lynch noted that diocese employees have a “generous” health care plan, one that does not cover contraceptives, the “morning-after” pill, or drugs like Viagra.

He also expressed fear that because the diocese is self-insured, that might disqualify it from the religious exemption. But a federal health official said Thursday that isn’t the case.

In his homily, which appears in full at his blog site, Lynch told the jurists of conflicts between church teachings and the laws of the land. “I have such a fear at this moment in time,” he said.

“As employers, we would be forced to provide in health care plans services and procedures which clearly are contrary to our beliefs and teachings,” he said.

“If they fail to shift in their present positions,” he said of federal officials, “then 2,300 employees of the Diocese of St. Petersburg will lose their health care coverage which they have come to treasure and rely upon.”

For many women, steep co-payments levied by their health insurers have deterred them from purchasing family planning services such as birth control pills in the past, a problem exacerbated by the country’s economic troubles.

A recent Kaiser Health Tracking Poll conducted by Public Opinion and Survey Research Program showed that two-thirds of Americans agree with the federal government’s recent decision to include birth control in its list of preventive services.

Furthermore, according to research conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, about “98 percent of sexually active Catholic women have used contraceptive methods banned by the church.”

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