No Change to Contraceptives Mandate/Narrow Exemption
The answer, delivered on Friday, was: No change
Religious groups of various faiths have been protesting ever since the federal government announced in the summer that all health insurance plans, except for those offered by churches, will have to cover a wide range of birth control measures. The mandatory drugs and procedures that must be offered by almost all health plans starting this August includes all contraceptives, including two abortifacient drugs, sterilization, and reproductive counseling.
The administration's exemption for religious employers was broad enough to protect from the mandate only churches and religious orders. But it was crafted not to protect religious organizations that serve the public (and not only co-religionists) or that offer material or psychological help (and not only prayer or preaching). Churches would be exempt from violating their consciences about paying for drugs and procedures they reject as immoral, but parachurch organizations (faith-based service organizations) would not be exempt. Also not exempt: individuals with a conscientious objection to paying for those drugs; owners of secular organizations with a moral objection; religious colleges and universities--they would have to include the drugs and procedures in the plans not only for their employees but also for their students.
Note that the contraceptives mandate applies to all health insurance plans--it is not a condition attached to federal funds such that a religious organization can avoid the violation of its convictions by refusing a federal grant or contract.
Not only Catholic leaders, but also evangelicals and orthodox Jews, among others, protested the mandate, because it requires including contraceptives, or because it includes abortifacients, or because of the evil of forcing religious employers to pay for "preventive services" they regard as immoral. And they protested the exemption that essentially defines most faith-based service organizations as not being religious at all. That's a terrible precedent to put into federal law and practice.
On Friday the administration gave its answer to all of the protests is: No change! No budging. No accommodation. No change in the mandate, for example, by eliminating the most controversial drugs, Plan B and ella, from required coverage. No change in the exemption, not even to protect church-governed charities.
The administration blandly assured everyone that it had carefully listened to the many protesting religious leaders. But it judged that no change was necessary. Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services said, "I believe this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services."
Oh, there was a concession, one change: the administration announced a one-year delay in imposition of the birth control mandate for nonprofit employers who currently do not pay for contraceptives in their health insurance plans because of their religious convictions. This delay, Secretary Sebelius said, "will allow these organizations more time and flexibility to adapt to this new rule."
In other words, this is not a year to negotiate a change that would accommodate religious convictions. No, just a year for the organizations to learn to suppress their moral qualms.
A year delay, many observers noted, puts the deadline for these protesting organizations safely on the other side of the presidential elections.
Among the responses to Friday's announcement:
* Galen Carey, VP of Government Relations for the National Association of Evangelicals, said, "No government has the right to compel its citizens to violate their conscience. The HHS rules trample on our most cherished freedoms and set a dangerous precedent."
* Richard Land, President of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, called the decision "outrageous." "It's analogous to giving a man on death row a one-year stay of execution. You can follow your conscience for one more year."
* Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, "Never before has the federal government forced individuals and organizations to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience. This shouldn't happen in a land where free exercise of religion ranks first in the Bill of Rights."
* Even the Washington Post blasted the administration, saying that it should have expanded the exemption and calling the one-year delay a "feint at a compromise."
Remedies: Two religious colleges, Belmont Abbey College (Catholic) and Colorado Christian University (Protestant) have already sued the federal government. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty represents the two colleges. Other religious institutions of higher education are contemplating lawsuits. And several bills have been introduced into Congress to deal with the religious-freedom and conscience concerns in the health reform legislation, including the problem of the birth control mandate.
Adding insult to injury, some defenders of the administration, to fend off charges that its actions diminish religious freedom, try to heap credit on it simply for upholding the law. For example, Sarah Posner, at Religion Dispatches, has written, "[T]he notion that the federal government has somehow discriminated against Catholics is rendered even more absurd by the hard numbers: in 2011 alone, according to the federal government database at www.usaspending.gov, Catholic Charities received over $753 million in federal funding. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has not, as the president promised on the campaign trail, reformed faith-based funding to ensure, among other things, that groups receiving taxpayer aid do not discriminate in hiring." But, of course, the federal government awards funding to particular private organizations not as an act of favor but because those organizations appear to be the most cost-effective suppliers of services; and what critics term "religious job discrimination" in fact is a management practice that is undergirded by federal laws and court decisions.
Take Note: The Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance organized two letters from leaders of organizations of various faiths, protesting the mandate and narrow exemption.
Dec. 21, 2011
August 26, 2011