President Obama talked the talk but then blatantly refused to walk the walk on the freedom of religious institutions from the Obamacare statute’s mandate for group health insurance coverage of abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives, and sterilization. The Obama Administration continues to trample on religious liberty by issuing rules that require many religious hospitals, charities, and schools to abandon the tenets of their faiths and comply with that mandate.
Many voices came together in objection to the interim final regulations of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Treasury and Labor Departments, implementing the Obamacare mandate, so expectations ran high that President Obama would order Secretary of HHS Kathleen Sebelius to correct the regulations and protect religious liberty before making the rules final.
On Friday, February 10, 2012, President Obama spoke to the White House Press Corps on the issue of the mandate. President Obama said:
Now, as we move to implement this rule, however, we’ve been mindful that there’s another principle at stake here — and that’s the principle of religious liberty, an inalienable right that is enshrined in our Constitution. As a citizen and as a Christian, I cherish this right.
Having recognized the inalienable constitutional right of religious liberty, the President went on to indicate that the Obama Administration needed to address the adverse impact of the mandate on that right, not taking the year that Secretary Sebelius had previously announced she would take, but rather addressing that impact within one or two weeks:
Now, after the many genuine concerns that have been raised over the last few weeks, as well as, frankly, the more cynical desire on the part of some to make this into a political football, it became clear that spending months hammering out a solution was not going to be an option, that we needed to move this faster. So last week, I directed the Department of Health and Human Services to speed up the process that had already been envisioned. We weren’t going to spend a year doing this; we’re going to spend a week or two doing this.
Thus, in discussing the interim final regulations implementing the Obamacare statute’s mandate, President Obama stated that (1) he was mindful of the “principle of religious liberty, and inalienable right that is enshrined in our Constitution, (2) “genuine concerns” have been raised, and (3) “spending months hammering out a solution was not going to be an option,” and that “we’re going to spend a week or two doing this.”
That was Friday. On the following Wednesday, February 15, 2012, HHS published the final regulations in the Federal Register. Secretary Sebelius changed nothing in the regulations in response either to the genuine concerns of the public or to the statement by the President. Indeed, the summary of the final rules that she published in the Federal Register could not have been clearer that she changed absolutely nothing:
SUMMARY: These regulations finalize, without change, interim final regulations authorizing the exemption of group health plans and group health insurance coverage sponsored by certain religious employers from having to cover certain preventive health services under provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
The rules trampling on religious liberty are now final and binding and will take effect on April 16, 2012.
Apparently in response to the President’s statements, Secretary Sebelius issued, on February 10, 2012, a memorandum she called “Guidance on the Temporary Enforcement Safe Harbor.” Her memorandum said that employers and group health plans will not, for the next year, “be subject to any enforcement action . . . for failing to cover recommended contraceptive services” if they certify to the government that they are non-profit, do not provide the mandated coverage because of their religious beliefs, and will ensure that their employees covered by their group health plan receive a government-drafted notice that their health plan will not cover contraceptive services during the year.
Secretary Sebelius did not change the rules; she simply said she would choose not to enforce the final rules (a choice she can, of course, reverse at any time). The Sebelius “SafeHarbor” does not address the genuine concerns about religious liberty that the President acknowledged.
President Obama and Secretary Sebelius have simply stated that they respect religious liberty but have taken no action to change the rules to protect religious liberty. Fortunately, other national leaders, such as Senators Roy Blunt, Kelly Ayotte, and Marco Rubio and Representative Jeff Fortenberry are taking the constitutional right of free exercise of religion enshrined in the First Amendment more seriously.
Senator Ayotte, noting on the floor of the Senate on February 7, 2012, that the rule is “an unprecedented, unnecessary affront to religious liberty in our country,” said:
I have heard many concerns from my constituents, and I would hope that Health and Human Services would stop what it is doing right now, this mandate that places religious institutions in this impossible position, with this impossible choice of violating their core beliefs in order to comply with a mandate or dropping employee insurance coverage altogether. We should not be putting these organizations that do great work throughout this country in that position.
Hopefully, religious institutions, those with whom they work, and national leaders will continue to press the Obama Administration to walk the walk and change the HHS rules so that religious hospitals, charities, and schools can continue to observe the tenets of their faiths and provide health insurance coverage to their employees.