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Health Care Ruling Prompts Catholic Bishops To Amp Up Efforts Against Contraception Mandate

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Catholic bishops have vowed to continue the fight against what they say is one of the most objectionable outcomes of the health care law that the Supreme Court largely upheld on Thursday: the requirement that religious institutions that aren't strictly for worship, including hospitals and schools, provide birth control with no co-pay as part of insurance plans.

In an email blast to supporters after the court decision, bishops told people to continue "praying for an end to this mandate" and "for the renewal of our nation’s commitment to religious freedom." The email comes in the middle of a two-week long series of prayer vigils and rallies in dozens of dioceses around the country against what church leaders have called an "assault on religious freedom."

The Catholic church -- one of the biggest opponents of the Obama administration's health care legislation -- was not part of the lawsuit that the court ruled on Thursday, but it still took the opportunity to rally its supporters and reiterate its claims that the law threatens the church. Leaders of the church say the Affordable Care Act is flawed because it doesn't include "conscience protection," in which hospitals and employers can object to providing health services and health care coverage that is against their moral or religious beliefs. The church has also said the health care law does not provide adequately for undocumented immigrants.

"The decision of the Supreme Court neither diminishes the moral imperative to ensure decent health care for all, nor eliminates the need to correct the fundamental flaws," bishops said Thursday in a statement.

The bishops kicked off their "Fortnight for Freedom" events against the contraception policy a week ago with a Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption in Baltimore. More than 1,000 Catholics attended the standing-room only event, including some who came from neighboring states, according to a spokesman for the Baltimore archdiocese.

But while nearly every Catholic diocese in the nation has, or plans to, host events as part of the bishops' effort -- it ends July 4 with a Mass in Washington, D.C. -- the reception among Catholic laity has been mixed.

When priests recently began distributing pamphlets championing religious liberty at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Washington, D.C., a group of parishioners responded by meeting with their pastor to speak out against the campaign.

"We told him that we can practice our religion and our liberties are not in danger. And we said we thought it was insulting to people around the world who actually have their religious liberty in danger," parishioner Eileen Zogby said. She and her husband started a blog, Blessed Sacrament Families United in Faith and Action, with 30 parishioners to speak out against the bishops.

"I'm okay with contraception. I think people of celibate priesthood who don't really know about these issues shoudn't be messing around with women's health," Zogby said.

Her views align with that of many Catholics, according to polls. A survey by the Washington, D.C.-based Public Religion Research Institute found that roughly six-in-10 Catholics say employers should be required to provide coverage for contraception with no co-pay in insurance plans.

Tom Pringle, a student at the University of Central Florida and a member of St. Charles Catholic Church in Orlando, said his parish community has taken the opposite approach to the fortnight protests.

"The HHS [Health and Human Services] mandate is Obama coming and saying, 'I am determining what a religious organization is.' As a church, we do not believe in contraception, we believe in the dignity of the person from the moment of conception until death," Pringle, 24, said. "The whole point of the Catholic church stepping up and doing this is that many of the dioceses are self-insured and any costs for contraception coverage will come from their own pockets."

Pringle said that his parish, where about 650 mostly retired Catholics attend Mass each week, held a kick-off ceremony for Fortnight for Freedom last week and played a video message from their bishop calling on all Catholics to join in prayer and protest.

Not all Catholic parishes or dioceses have responded so strongly.

In Charlotte, N.C., where Joe Guyon attends Mass every week at St. Peter's Catholic Church, talk of contraception and religious liberty has been absent from the pews, he said.

"The people I talk to, they are either not interested or they do not understand where the bishops are coming from," said Guyon, a 66-year-old hospice worker. But despite his own disagreement with the bishops, Guyon said he will remain committed to his church.

"While I acknowledge that the fortnight thing has me a bit nuts, for me it's not church," he said. "The bishops can do their fortnight thing if that's what makes them happy ... I'll keep showing up every Sunday in spite of them."

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