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Catholics hear protests of Obama health ruling at Mass

(Reuters) - U.S. Catholic bishops and priests across the country read out letters at Mass on Sunday protesting plans by President Barack Obama's administration to force religiously-affiliated nonprofit groups to offer birth-control coverage to women employees.

On Jan 20, the Obama administration made final a proposal requiring most employer-sponsored health plans to offer women contraceptive services including sterilization without copays, co-insurance or deductibles.

Religious authorities including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops condemned the rule as a violation of religious conscience and the constitutional right to religious freedom.

In an organized protest, numerous local media reported on Sunday that Catholic clergy read out letters of protest Mass.

"We cannot, we will not, comply with this unjust law," wrote Phoenix bishop Thomas J. Olmsted in one such letter, adding that the rule was an attack on religious freedoms enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

"Our parents and grandparents did not come to these shores to help build (America) ... or to have the posterity stripped of their God given rights," he added.

The rule changes ordered by the administration were welcomed

by birth control advocates including the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

The government's decision does not apply to churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and some religiously-affiliated elementary and secondary schools, which remain exempt.

But it came as a blow to religious officials who pushed hard for a broader exemption that would have included religious organizations whose main purpose is not to provide religious services for their members. These include institutions such as Catholic-affiliated hospitals.

The Obama administration said it sought to meet those concerns by allowing religious groups an extra year to adjust.

The change is intended to reduce health costs, unwanted pregnancies and abortions, as part of Obama's healthcare overhaul.

The 2010 healthcare reform law, his signature domestic policy achievement, is facing unprecedented challenges in the Supreme Court and from Republicans this year as the president seeks re-election.

(Reporting By Tim Gaynor; Editing by Greg McCune)

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