President Obama’s February 10th press conference and other actions by his administration satisfied the conscience concerns of some religious leaders and organizations but only increased the concerns of many others. In an “interim final rule” issued last summer, the administration had decided to carve out only a very narrow exemption to its requirement that all health insurance plans must cover, without co-pays, contraceptives, abortion-inducing contraceptives, sterilization, and reproductive counseling and education.
Churches would be exempted, the administration said, but not parachurches–because religious organizations that serve more than only fellow believers and that offer more than “inculcation in religious values” do not fit the administration’s narrow definition of a “religious employer.” When, on January 20, HHS Secretary Sebelius said that the administration was sticking with this narrow exemption despite all of the criticism, the uproar dramatically escalated, including loud protests from many liberal Catholic allies of the administration.
On February 10, the administration took several actions in response to the furor. Without changing anything, it finalized the “interim final rule” with its narrow exemption–it is now federal law. Only churches are exempted from the mandate (churches with significant community-service programs might not be, however).
But what about parachurch organizations–religious colleges and schools, faith-based drug treatment programs, crisis pregnancy centers, and all the wide variety of community-serving religious organizations? The administration said that faith-based service organizations whose insurance plans currently do not, for religious reasons, pay for contraceptives would be able to maintain that exclusion for a year, notwithstanding that the mandate comes into effect for health plans that have a start date of August 1, 2012, or later.
The administration has promised to developed a new, separate, regulation for parachurch organizations concerned about the contraceptive mandate. This is to be done over the next year (it is not cynical to imagine that the process will not start until after the November elections). Parachurch organizations will not get the complete exemption that churches have received. Instead, the President has promised what many (even supporters) have called a “fig leaf”: the requirement to provide free contraceptives will be transferred from the parachurch organizations to their insurance companies, which will notify the employees of this free benefit and also will be required (in theory) to absorb all costs of the birth control drugs, procedures, and education.
For more detail, see Faith-Based Services and the Contraception Mandate on IRFA’s website.
Many press reports and some religious leaders have hailed this as a great compromise that, as the President claims, satisfies both the requirement to respect religious freedom and his administration’s deep commitment to ensure easy and widespread access to birth control.
Any opposition must therefore be due to a hatred of (take your choice): the President, and/or expanded access to health care, women, birth control.
A wiser approach is to listen carefully to the growing chorus of serious voices that decry the purported compromise as not a real solution for the religious freedom problem.
If the government insists on making birth control more easily accessible, it must find some other way to accomplish its purpose. Notable developments since the announcement of the grand compromise include:
– Feb. 16 hearing of the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee, featuring a Catholic, a Jewish, and several Protestant religious leaders, and also representatives from five religious colleges (2 Catholic, 3 Protestant). Video and written statements are available here.
See also the analysis by Joshua Good, “Religious Liberty, The Contraceptives Mandate, and Civility,” Patheos.com,
– Feb. 21. Lawsuits continue to be filed against the federal government. Suits have now been filed by Belmont Abbey College (Catholic), Colorado Christian University (Protestant), EWTN (Catholic television network), Priests for Life (Catholic), Louisiana College (Protestant), and Geneva College (Protestant).
All of the 181 US Catholic bishops have spoken out against the mandate. Catholic Charities USA has warned against “mischaracterizations” of its position in the media, denying that it has accepted the President’s compromise.
A growing number of other Catholic institutions have also criticized the supposed accommodation. A long list of scholars and leaders from many faiths (over 300 and counting) has signed a letter of protest initiated by Mary Ann Glendon, John Garvey, Robert George, Carter Snead, and Yuval Levin.
Family Research Council released a letter of protest signed by more than 2,500 pastors and evangelical leaders.
Terry Mattingly, “Frame game: Mere politics? Just birth control?GetReligion.org, Feb. 12.
N.C. Aizenman and Lena H. Sun, “Contraceptive rules remain in flux ,” Washington Post, Feb. 20 (although many states have their own contraceptive mandates, religious organizations can find ways to avoid violating their convictions; the federal mandate will eliminate these escapes)
Pew Forum, “Public Divided Over Birth Control Insurance Mandate,” Feb. 14.
Maggie Karner, “Where the Women Were During the House Contraception Mandate Hearing The effort to tarnish religious freedom concerns as sexism is clever but wrong,” ChristianityToday.com, Feb. 17.
Michael Stokes Paulsen, “Obama’s Contraception Cram-down: The Pork Precedent,” Public Discourse Feb. 21.
Michael Gerson, “Clarifying the Basics of Religious Freedom,” Capital CommentaryFeb. 17.
Birth Control Mandate Is About Religious Freedom, Scholar Says” ChristianPost.com, Feb. 16 (interview with Stephen Monsma).
Melissa Rogers, “Honoring Religious Objections and Access to Contraceptive Coverage,” HuffingtonPost.com, Feb. 17. (“It is not the government’s job to try to determine what is the ‘right’ understanding of a faith; instead, its job is to assess whether the faith practice is sincere and the burden on it is substantial. Having already demonstrated an interest in accommodating spiritual obligations, the administration can and should consider different understandings of those obligations.”)
The Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance works to safeguard the religious identity, faith-based standards and practices, and faith-shaped services of faith-based organizations across the range of service sectors and religions, enabling them to make their distinctive and best contributions to the common good.