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Debate Growing Over Religious Freedom & Birth Control

DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) - The volatile mix of religion, reproductive rights and politics has a new flash point.

Federal rules requiring most employer health plans to cover contraceptives will exempt most churches.  But, faith-based institutions such as hospitals and charities will be required to comply… and provide coverage for all forms of FDA approved contraceptives, including the controversial so called 'morning after pill'.

"We cannot live with that kind of regulation, " says Bishop Kevin Farrell, Catholic Diocese of Dallas, "nor will we."

Bishop Farrell insists that the new regulations will force the catholic church to only hire Catholics… those who share their religious beliefs or "close the hospitals, close the schools."

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human services countered that the new rules will continue to exempt churches and insist that the decision strikes an appropriate balance between religious freedom and increasing access to important preventative services.

Officials also point out that 28 states already have laws requiring health plans to cover contraceptives and say that Catholic hospitals and universities in those states have managed to comply with the law and also respect their religious beliefs.

Federal officials say the new rules also apply to student services at faith-based institutions.  But, health clinics at many Catholic universities around the country are rebelling—and refusing to write prescriptions for birth control.

"Personally, I would not use it myself, " says Katherine Feiler, a University of Dallas Sophomore.  But, Feiler says if the pills were used to treat a medical problem and not used for contraception, "I would probably be okay with that."  Feiler says most of the students at the liberal arts college in Irving are Catholic and share the church's views prohibiting birth control.

Other Catholics—including Washington, D.C. based reproductive rights advocacy group Catholics for Choice-- stress that "freedom of religion also includes freedom FROM religion."  According to a spokesperson for the group, "We know that 98% of Catholic women have used birth control, and this decision means their consciences have been respected and that the administration has left this decision up to families."

The nation's bishops, however,  have decried the new rules as a violation of First Amendment rights.

"You're asking us to violate our conscience… you're forcing me to do something that is against what I believe in, " says Bishop Farrell.

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