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Utah bishop welcomes contraceptive compromise

Published February 13, 2012 1:39 pm

Birth control • Catholic leader remains wary; LDS Church silent on this religious-liberty fight.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah's Catholic Bishop John Wester on Friday welcomed President Barack Obama's proposed compromise that would allow church-affiliated hospitals, schools and charities to refuse to cover contraception.

In those cases, insurance companies then would have to provide the free service.

The change came in response to strident opposition from Catholic bishops, who saw the original mandate on birth control as violating religious liberty.

"I'm encouraged by the president's initial statement today," Wester said in a phone interview Friday. "It's a good sign that there's movement on the issue."

But the bishop, leader of Utah's 300,000 Catholics, said he still is "waiting to see how it plays out."

"It remains to be seen," he added, "what actually gets etched in stone."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called the move "a first step in the right direction," but reserved judgment.

"We hope to work with the administration," Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan said in a statement, "to guarantee that Americans' consciences and our religious freedom are not harmed by these regulations."

Earlier this week, Wester joined the chorus of national voices condemning the administration's original plan.

It reveals an "utter disregard ... for long-established protections for religious freedom," Wester wrote in this week's Intermountain Catholic. "The idea that people should be free from government coercion that contradicts their conscience or beliefs is well established."

Many Catholic bishops have written letters to their flocks outlining reasons for opposing birth control. The church teaching is, essentially, that all sex acts should be open to the possibility of conception.

Wester distributed a similar statement throughout the Salt Lake City diocese that explains "my concerns in greater detail."

Due to Obama's announcement Friday, Wester now plans to add a statement responding to the administration's latest overture.

Two years ago, Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, discussed religious freedom at Brigham Young University in a show of solidarity with the LDS Church and other faiths. "The speech," wrote Wester, "resonated across religions."

Indeed, several other faiths have stepped up to support the bishops' opposition to a federal mandate.

Leaders from the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, National Association of Evangelicals, Southern Baptists, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and others condemned the rule "as an assault on religious liberty," according to a release from the Institute on Religion & Democracy.

Megachurch pastor Rick Warren declared, according to the release,"I'd go to jail rather than cave in to a government mandate that violates what God commands us to do."

Several Republican presidential contenders attacked the original mandate as well. The Associated Press reported that Mitt Romney, a Mormon, called it "an assault on religion" and "a real blow ... to our friends in the Catholic faith."

Though typically aligned with Catholics and other conservative Christians on such religious issues, the LDS Church has not weighed in on this one. The Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declined to comment, spokesman Scott Trotter said Thursday.

The LDS Church does not condemn most methods of birth control, according to its Handbook for local leaders, leaving such decisions up to couples. It does, however, "strongly discourage" permanent solutions such as vasectomies and tubal ligations.

Deseret Mutual, which insures all employees in LDS Church-owned operations, does not "currently cover birth control unless it is prescribed to treat a medical condition," according to KUTV.

Some religious groups have sided with Obama. In a statement, some 23 Christian, Jewish and Muslims groups said that "women and men have the right to decide whether or not to apply the principles of their faith to family-planning decisions, and to do so they must have access to services."

pstack@sltrib.com