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RICHMOND A Catholic lobbyist, a state legislator and other experts last week debated whether the federal law requiring employers to provide health insurance coverage for birth control violates the religious freedoms of faith-based institutions.

Jeffrey Caruso, executive director of the Virginia Catholic Conference, called the law an infringement on Catholic institutions’ religious freedoms. Forcing church-operated hospitals and schools to distribute free contraceptives to employees goes against church principles, Caruso said. “This issue is intrusive.”

But state Delegate Jennifer McClellan said employees of such institutions have the right to contraceptives under the health insurance act approved by Congress and President Barack Obama. Without insurance, more than half of women age 18-34 struggle to afford contraceptives, McClellan said. “If you can’t access it because of financial barriers, do you really have a right to it?”

The two sides squared off at a panel discussion hosted by the Religious Studies Department at Virginia Commonwealth University. The event, held in VCU’s Student Commons Theater, was called “Costly Coverage: Religious Freedom and Reproductive Rights in the Birth Control Debate.”

Caruso, whose office represents the Catholic dioceses of Richmond and Arlington on matters of public policy, said schools, hospitals and other institutions formed under a specific religion should be able to operate within their beliefs. Catholic institutions are being forced to violate their teachings by providing contraception, he said.

William Hurd, a partner at the Troutman Sanders law firm and adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law, agreed. Just because women are legally entitled to contraceptives doesn’t mean contraceptives should be provided to women for free, he said.

“There is a big difference in saying that somebody has the right to do something, and saying that someone else must arrange to pay for it,” Hurd said.

But McClellan said birth control pills aren’t used only to prevent pregnancy. The Democratic lawmaker and attorney, who represents the 71st House District in Richmond, said she was prescribed the pill to help with ovarian cysts. If women do not have access to this medication, they are at risk for losing an ovary, McClellan said.

She also said that when a religious institution takes on a public function, it loses its religious purpose. Religious hospitals, for example, are performing public services and therefore should take public policy into consideration, McClellan said.

Karen Raschke, a retired attorney and Planned Parenthood lobbyist, agreed with McClellan. She asked rhetorically how the law might apply to an Islamic hospital treating non-Muslims during the month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunup to sundown.

“If patients were treated in an Islamic hospital, would they be denied food during the daylight hours of Ramadan?” Raschke asked.

All of the panelists noted that there are diverse opinions about the health care law. The courts will make the final decision, Hurd and McClellan said.

Panelists on both sides said they were pleased by how Tuesday’s debate went.

“This issue is not just for men or just for women,” Caruso said afterward. “But the debate helped people on both sides of the issue become better informed.”

McClellan said, “There was obviously a lot of passion in the room. Having people here who really care about the issue helps everyone be better educated.”