Amidst the many policy prescriptions of last night’s speech, President Obama’s State of the Union address was notably void of comment on the religious liberty conflicts his own Administration has created.
In yet another assault on religious organizations’ freedom, the Obama Administration released a decision Friday afternoon finalizing an Obamacare health insurance mandate that will restrict the religious liberty of employers to act in accordance with their conscience.
Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius released a finalized version of an Obamacare mandate that will require almost all insurance companies to cover contraceptives and sterilization without cost to the insured starting August 1 of this year. Like the interim version of the rule released this past summer, the final mandate requires coverage of all FDA-approved contraceptives, including controversial drugs like ella and Plan B that can cause abortions in early pregnancies.
Employers with deep religious and moral objections to subsidizing coverage for such services are left largely unprotected by the mandate’s offensively narrow religious exemption. Indeed, the exemption covers only organizations whose primary duty is to “inculcate religious belief”—effectively excluding religious employers such as schools, hospitals, and social service organizations.
Outcry from religiously affiliated employers, including two lawsuits against HHS over the lack of protection for religious freedom, had bolstered hopes that the Obama Administration would change the mandate or at least broaden its religious exemption.
Those hopes failed last week as Secretary Sebelius announced the Administration would not provide robust protection of religious liberty but would give employers with religious objections an additional 12 months for “more time and flexibility to adapt to the new rule.” Apparently, according to the Secretary’s reasoning, dilemmas of conscience are easily dismissed when merely given enough “time and flexibility.”
However, as Hannah Smith, legal counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, has pointed out, “Religious colleges, universities, and hospitals will never pay for abortion drugs in violation of their religious beliefs—this year or any other year.” The Becket Fund is leading litigation in two lawsuits against the mandate, representing Belmont Abbey College and Colorado Christian University, arguing that forcing religious employers to subsidize medications and procedures they find morally objectionable flies in the face of religious freedom.
This latest episode isn’t the first time the Obama Administration has taken the wrong side in the fight to protect religious liberty. The Administration argued in a recent Supreme Court case, Hosanna Tabor v. EEOC, that religious employers should not have the ability to maintain the integrity of their institutions through religious hiring practices. In an embarrassing incident for the Obama Administration, the Supreme Court dismissed the Department of Justice’s argument, unanimously ruling in favor of institutional religious liberty. The Becket Fund also led the successful argument for religious freedom in that case.
By providing education, health care, and countless social services, religiously affiliated organizations play a profound role in sustaining civil society. Policymakers should protect the religious freedom of these organizations—and all employers and individuals—to buy and provide insurance in accordance with their deeply held beliefs about life and health.