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Army defends chaplain intervention over letter criticizing contraceptive mandate

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FILE: Oct. 31, 2011: Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is seen in the Oval Office at the White House. (AP)

The Army said Tuesday that a request for chaplains not to read a letter in Sunday Mass that expressed disapproval of a new regulation in the Obama administration's health care law was not an attempt to "censor," but rather a cautionary move to preserve "military order and discipline." 

The Army acknowledged that Chief of Chaplains Donald Rutherford had asked chaplains to only distribute, but not read, the Jan. 26 letter sent by Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio. The concern was apparently over a single line. 

"The Chief of Chaplains was concerned that one line in the 456-word letter could be misinterpreted as a call to civil disobedience within our nation's military ranks," the statement said. 

A senior Army official separately confirmed that the offending line stated: "We cannot -- we will not -- comply with this unjust law." The official confirmed that "there was a worry that would be a call for civil obedience." 

The Army statement went on to say that the chief of chaplains was not rendering a judgment on the letter's message, but acted only out of "concern that a single line might run counter to proper military order and discipline."

"Any suggestion that he or the Army were attempting to censor the clergy is not supported by the facts," the Army said. 

According to the Army, Secretary John McHugh was not involved in the issue until after Rutherford sent out his request. The Army said McHugh later spoke with the archbishop, who offered to remove the offending line, and that the "amended letter" was redistributed and read on Sunday at Army chapels. 

"We consider this matter closed," the Army said. 

In the letter, Broglio writes to pastors telling them that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services rule that requires coverage of sterilization, abortifacients and contraception be included in virtually all health plans is a direct violation of the First Amendment allowing religious liberty.

"As a result, unless the rule is overturned, we Catholics will be compelled to choose between violating our consciences or dropping health coverage for our employees (and suffering the penalties for doing so)," he wrote.

"We cannot -- we will not -- comply with this unjust law. People of faith cannot be made second-class citizens. We are already joined by our brothers and sisters of all faiths and many others of good will in this important effort to regain our religious freedom. 

"Our parents and grandparents did not come to these shores to help build America’s cities and towns, its infrastructure and institutions, its enterprise and culture, only to have their posterity stripped of their God-given rights. In generations past, the Church has always been able to count on the faithful to stand up and protect her sacred rights and duties. I hope and trust she can count on this generation of Catholics to do the same. Your children and grandchildren deserve nothing less," he wrote. 

Click here to read more on this story from Fox News Radio

Broglio then urged pastors to "learn more about this severe assault on religious liberty and how to contact Congress in support of legislation that would reverse the administration's decision."

That legislation is already in the works. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and 20 cosponsors filed the the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 2012, which would repeal the mandate that Rubio says "violates the religious liberties and conscience rights of faith-based institutions by forcing them to offer employees insurance coverage for contraceptives."

"As Americans, we should all be appalled by an activist government so overbearing and so obsessed with forcing mandates on the American people that it forces such a choice on religious institutions," Rubio wrote in an editorial Friday in The New York Post.

The Obama administration defends the decision to require Catholic groups fund reproductive medications and procedures by saying that many lay individuals work in these institutions.  

"There are tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of women who work in these hospitals and universities who are not Catholic or they may be Catholic but they use birth control and the question is whether they will have the same, the same package that every other woman in the country has, the same right and access to basic preventive care," Obama senior adviser David Axelrod told MSNBC on Tuesday. 

But the administration could shift its maneuvers. White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday that besides the year the Catholic institutions were given to comply, lost in the coverage is the effort "to work with those religious institutions to try to implement this policy in a way that ensures that women have access to preventive care, but tries to allay the concerns of these institutions."

Democratic senators on Tuesday were planning a full-throated defense of the administration policy, calling it a "protection of women's health." Some see a concerted GOP attack on women's health starting with efforts to shut down the government last year over abortion policy, the Komen Foundation-Planned Parenthood flap over breast cancer funding and now the controversy over the decision to require Catholic institutions to provide contraceptives free of charge.

But Jordan Sekulow, director of policy and international operations at the American Center for Law and Justice, told FoxNews.com that the legislation may win support from the few Democrats who are either pro-life or have large Catholic constituencies. 

"I don't think it's as partisan as people think," Sekulow said. "Bob Casey from Pennsylvania is probably key there. Joe Manchin of West Virginia I think would be someone who would side on this quickly. He already said he's already concerned about this. So if Rubio can get enough support from that community then you could handle this. It would obviously pass through the house and hten the Senate and then the president would have to make a decision on his desk, not on (Health and Human Services Secretary) Kathleen Sebelius issuing the order." 

Meanwhile, Planned Parenthood has released a poll from the Democratic firm, Public Policy Polling, that says 53 percent of Catholics surveyed agree with the decision to require Catholic hospitals and universities to provide prescription birth control without no additional out-of-pocket fees. According to the poll, 37 percent are opposed. 

The poll showed 53 percent of Catholics also agree that women employed by Catholic hospitals and universities should have the same rights to contraceptive coverage as other women while only 39 percent say these institutions should be exempted because contraception runs counter to Catholic teachings.

Democrats also pointed to a similar poll from the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, which says 49 percent of Americans say that religiously affiliated colleges and hospitals should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception or birth control at no cost. Forty-six percent say they should not have to provide this type of coverage.

With 300,000 Catholics serving in the Armed Forces not hearing the letter in services, retired Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer of the Center for Advanced Defense Studies said he hopes the White House "backs down." 

"Clearly, the Army's job is to be a military organization, not be in the middle of a social values conflict," he told Fox News. "This is something we've got to resolve quickly. Otherwise it will diminish our ability to fight as a military.