The White House has announced adoption of new rules for HHS health plan requirements that will only allow “church-like” organizations to be eligible for federal religious freedom exemptions for hiring and other religious freedoms. This means that any faith-based service organizations like youth, prison, adoption, womens’ counseling, pharmacies, shelters, food pantries, hospitals, schools, and other programs that do more than just preach and teach religion, and that serve the public and not only co-religionists, would for those very reasons be considered to be no different than secular organizations.
SEE COMMENTS TO WHITE HOUSE BY U.S. CATHOLIC BISHOPS BELOW
Catholic Bishops stressed that the White House coverage mandate is unprecedented, illegal, and unconstitutional, and that the regulations’ narrow exemption of religious employers is also unprecedented in federal law, illegal, and unconstitutional.
Unlike the discriminatory hiring practices of the offices of Representatives George Miller and Pete Stark, these mission-oriented, faith-based organizations would not be able to hire workers that share the same vision of the organization. In addition to losing first Amendment guarantees, the White House rules dictate that faith-based providers must accept birth control, abortion, sterlization, or eligibility of same sex partnerships, even while acknowledging that many religious communities object to some of those services or requirements.
In response, on August 26, more than 40 Protestant, Catholic, and orthodox Jewish leaders wrote to Joshua DuBois, head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, asking him to intervene with the Obama administration to overturn this recently adopted narrow religious exemption just for churches.
Catholic leaders in particular, and many faith-based institutions, have consistently expressed measured moral objections to some federally funded services and requirements and the mandate that all health plans must cover them. But the narrowness of the religious exemption that was written into federal regulations is of deep concern to a much broader group of religious leaders and institutions.
Unlike the discriminatory hiring practices of the offices of Representatives George Miller and Pete Stark, these mission-oriented, faith-based organizations would not be offered exemption to be able to hire workers that share the same vision
In the letter, which was organized by IRFA, faith leaders point out, “A major purpose of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is to assist the Administration in understanding the unique character and capabilities of faith-based organizations and to implement policies that enable those organizations, along with other organizations, to collaborate with the government to serve people who need assistance.” It asked Joshua DuBois and his office “to vigorously advocate on behalf of faith-based organizations” and against the administration’s mistakenly narrow definition of “religious employer.”
According to Stanley Carlson-Thies, Exectuive Director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, the sharply worded letter from the the Office of the General Counsel of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops stressed that the White House coverage mandate is unprecedented, illegal, and unconstitutional, and that the regulations’ narrow exemption of religious employers is also unprecedented in federal law, illegal, and unconstitutional. The Obama administration’s requirements here, the comment states, constitute “an unprecedented attack on religious liberty.”
The coverage mandate itself, by requiring health insurance to cover “all FDA-approved contraceptives”–and thus coverage of at least one abortifacient drug–violates, among other things, the health insurance law itself (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) and President Obama’s Executive Order intended to assure critics that the law would not promote abortions. Furthermore, the mandate, by forcing coverage of such services by virtually all health insurance plans, unconstitutionally “coerces” organizations and individuals “to subsidize–and thereby endorse–conduct that they teach or otherwise state is wrong.”
The comment goes on to document the utter inadequacy of the religious exemption that is written into the regulations. The exemption only covers a few religious employers–church-like entities. It thus does not protect the religious freedom or conscience rights of individuals, who are required by the law to purchase insurance; religiously affiliated insurance companies; secular organizations that object to covering certain services; and the vast majority of faith-based service organizations. The comment argues that the exemption violates the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment.
Most likely, most religious colleges and universities are not exempt under the narrow definition of religious employers. In any case, the health insurance plans they offer to their students are, under the administration’s rules, obligated to cover contraceptive services, even if the college or university itself is exempt.
The comment notes that, to qualify for the exemption, a religious organization has to have as its purpose “the inculcation of religious values” and must serve predominantly only those of its own faith. And yet, preposterously, under these criteria, “even the ministry of Jesus and the early Christian Church would not qualify as ‘religious,’ because they did not confine their ministry to their co-religionists or engage only in a preaching ministry. In effect, the exemption is directly at odds with the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which Jesus teaches concern and assistance for those in need, regardless of faith differences.”
The only adequate solution, the comment says, is for the administration to rescind the mandate that insurance plans must cover contraceptive services.
Note: Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) has proposed the “Respect for Rights of Conscience Act of 2011,” HR 1179, which would permit organizations, individuals, and insurers not to pay for or support services that conflict with their “religious beliefs or moral convictions.”