BY THE NUMBERS
55 -- Percentage of Americans who believe employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception.
58 -- Percentage of Catholics who agree.
61 -- Percentage of religiously unaffiliated Americans who agree.
38 -- Percentage of white evangelical Protestants who agree.
73 -- Percentage of Democrats who agree.
36 -- Percentage of Republicans who agree.
62 -- Percentage of women who agree.
47 -- Percentage of men who agree.
Source: Public Religion Research Institute
Leaders of local Catholic organizations and churches are urging the Obama administration to reconsider a ruling that requires religiously affiliated institutions to provide health plans that cover all forms of contraception.
A national poll out on Tuesday showed that 52 percent of Catholics support the new requirement for religious institutions.
In Chattanooga, Catholic institutions such as Memorial Health Care System, Alexian Village and Chattanooga Area Catholic Schools employ more than 5,000 people who would be affected directly by the ruling.
"This is a violation of the First Amendment and freedom of religion; the government is telling us what to do," said Father Paul Williams, with St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Dalton, Ga. "It has very little to do with the church's teaching on contraceptives and has everything to do with the government forcing us to violate our conscience."
The Obama administration ruling, issued Jan. 20, has sparked a national debate about access to health care, women's rights and freedom of religion.
Hundreds of Catholic leaders nationwide have condemned the move from their pulpits in the last two weeks, urging their parishioners to call lawmakers to protest the move.
Supporters of the ruling point out that 28 states already require insurance plans to cover contraception if they cover other prescription drugs, although many states have broader religious exemptions than the new federal one.
Tennessee does not have a contraceptive coverage law, but Georgia does.
Leaders at Memorial Health Care System, the largest local institution affected by the ruling, said they are working to gain clarity on the ruling. The hospital, which has about 4,500 employees, is part of Catholic Health Initiatives.
In a statement, Memorial President and Chief Executive James H. Hobson said he hopes a resolution will protect Catholic hospitals and health organizations from violating their beliefs while being in compliance with the law.
"The challenge that these regulations pose for many groups remains unresolved," Hobson said. "This indicates the need for an effective national conversation on the appropriate conscience protections in our pluralistic country, which has always respected the role of religions."
Memorial officials declined to be interviewed or to provide employee interviews.
Perry Storey, principal at Notre Dame High School, said the school has discussed the issue with employees and also shared a letter from Knoxville Bishop Richard F. Stika, who oversees the Chattanooga area.
Stika calls the ruling an "unjust law" that "essentially stripped Catholics and citizens of any faith of our Nation's first and most fundamental freedom -- our religious liberty."
Stika's letter also was read in his Catholic church Sunday, Storey said.
The shift in health care coverage for all contraceptives approved by the Federal Drug Administration comes under the Affordable Care Act, which requires the contraceptives to be provided with no copays or additional costs.
In August 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services first said secular institutions must begin providing the coverage by Aug. 1 of this year.
The new ruling tightens those requirements, providing a narrow exemption for religious organizations. Institutions that primarily employ people of their own faith -- such as churches -- will be exempt, the ruling says.
Nonprofit employers who, based on religious beliefs, do not currently provide contraceptive coverage in their insurance plan, will be provided an additional year -- until Aug. 1, 2013 -- to comply with the new law.
"We will continue to work closely with religious groups during this transitional period to discuss their concerns," the ruling says.
Dalton's Williams said the Catholic church will not need a year to make a decision.
"It takes a total of 10 seconds," he said. "And 10 instead of just two because we did a double take and asked if this really is a serious question. It's a no-brainer for Catholics."
However, a Public Religion Research Institute poll released Tuesday shows that 55 percent of Americans and 58 percent of Catholics believe employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception.
The poll shows that fewer people support requiring religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals to provide the coverage, with 49 percent saying they supported the move. But a majority of Catholics, 52 percent, still support it.
Women and younger Americans were more supportive of the requirements, the poll shows.
Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...