ROME - The top U.S. Catholic bishop vowed legislative and court challenges Tuesday to a compromise by President Barack Obama to his healthcare mandate that now exempts religiously affiliated institutions from paying directly for birth control for their workers, instead making insurance companies responsible.
Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, who heads the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in an interview with The Associated Press that he trusted Obama wasn't anti-religious and intended to make good on his pledge to work with religious groups to fine-tune the mandate.
"I want to take him at his word," Dolan said in Rome, where he will be made a cardinal Saturday. But he stressed: "I do have to say it's getting harder and harder," to believe Obama's claim to prioritize religious freedom issues given the latest controversy.
Obama sought to quell fierce election-year outrage on Friday by abandoning his stand that religiously affiliated institutions such as Catholic hospitals and universities must pay for birth control. Instead, he said insurance would step in to provide the coverage.
The administration's initial position had outraged evangelicals and Catholic bishops and emboldened many Republicans who charged that it amounted to an assault on religion by forcing religious institutions to pay for contraception, sterilization and the morning-after pill against their consciences.
The mandate also raised greater philosophical questions about which institutions would qualify as religious and could therefore be exempt.
"Does the federal government have the right to tell a religious individual or a religious entity how to define yourself?" Dolan asked. "This is what gives us greater chill."
Initially, Dolan had termed Obama's compromise as "a first step in the right direction" after hearing about it Friday morning. But later that day, Dolan's USCCB issued a statement rejecting it, saying the arrangement was unacceptable and raised "serious moral concerns."
Dolan, the archbishop of New York, said the main concern is that the so-called "choking mandates" remain. In addition many Catholic entities are self-insured. It remains unclear how they would get around the mandate to provide services that they consider morally illicit.
"Was what was intended to be a concession, and what gave us a glimmer of hope at the beginning ... really just amount to a hill of beans? And it seems as if it does," Dolan said.
He vowed to support legislation under way in Congress that would allow any employer to deny birth control coverage if it runs counter to their religious or moral beliefs. The White House on Monday termed the proposed legislation "dangerous and wrong."
Dolan said the U.S. bishops will now work hard to support passage of the new legislation. "I couldn't see why the president would have any consternation, because he said to me that religious freedom remains sacrosanct. Well, let's legislatively guarantee it," Dolan said.
Separately, he said, the bishops will back court challenges to the mandate being undertaken by others. He said he didn't think the USCCB itself, however, would sue the government over the issue.
Dolan spoke at the North American College, the U.S. seminary in Rome, where he was a student in the 1970s and served as rector starting in 1994.
On Saturday, Pope Benedict XVI will make Dolan and 20 other bishops cardinals, the red-capped princes of the church who will elect the next pope.