Bishops Say HHS Mandate Still Threatens Religious Liberty
USCCB legal analysis states that the Obama administration’s latest accommodation proposal is inadequate.
WASHINGTON — Despite proposals to modify the federal contraception and abortion mandate, the U.S. bishops said that the regulation is still unacceptable due to its narrow view of religion and resulting violations of religious liberty.
“The identity of the person or group having the religious-freedom objection should not matter; what should matter instead is whether the person or group faces government coercion to violate conscience,” said a document filed on behalf of the U.S. bishops.
“Religious freedom is for all who face this threat, not just some,” the March 20 statement declared.
The document was written by Anthony Picarello and Michael Moses, general counsels for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Responding to a government comment period, it offers feedback on a proposed change to the federal contraception mandate.
“We are willing, now as always, to work with the administration to reach a just and lawful resolution of these issues,” the bishops’ document said. “In the meantime, along with others, we will continue to look for resolution of these issues in Congress and in the courts.”
Issued under the authority of the Affordable Care Act, the mandate requires nearly all employers to offer insurance plans covering abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilization, even if providing those products violates their deeply held religious beliefs.
While a small number of religious exemptions were included in the original mandate — mainly to houses of worship — the vast majority of religious organizations were bound by its requirements.
The mandate has come under fire by the U.S. bishops and scores of other religious leaders, who criticize the regulation for violating their constitutional right to religious freedom. More than 100 plaintiffs across the country have filed lawsuits challenging the mandate.
In response to the wave of protests, the Obama administration proposed an “accommodation” under which the objectionable coverage would be offered for free to employees of religious organizations that oppose the mandate.
The administration said this coverage can be offered for free because the cost of the contraceptives would be offset by the “tremendous health benefits” that women enjoy from using contraception, along with the fewer childbirths that will result.
Critics have voiced doubt over these claims, arguing that the coverage will ultimately be funded through the premium payments of the objecting religious groups.
A Number of Problems
The bishops’ comments enumerated a number of problems with the proposed update to the regulations.
First, the document explained, the suggested alteration “makes no change in the underlying mandate” and still requires coverage of contraceptives, sterilizations and abortion-causing drugs.
“These are items and procedures that, unlike other mandated ‘preventive services,’ do not prevent disease,” it stated.
Furthermore, the suggested change “offers no exemption or accommodation of any kind whatsoever” for-profit businesses, secular nonprofits and individual business owners who believe the coverage to be immoral, nor does it allow individuals who do not wish to have such coverage to refuse it when they enroll.
Additionally, while the mandate’s language defining “religious institutions” has improved, the statement explained, “it continues to be highly objectionable” by treating religiously affiliated charities, schools, hospitals and institutions as having “secondary religious importance” to houses of worship.
In discussing the mandate, the bishops have voiced serious concern over the language it uses to discuss religious institutions and activities, implying that soup kitchens, hospitals and other religious charities are deserving to a lesser degree of religious freedom than churches, temples and synagogues.
The comments stated that “just as religion is not limited to worship, the freedom of religion is not limited to the freedom of worship. Religious freedom must also include the freedom to abide by Church teachings, even outside the four walls of the sanctuary.”
Even nonprofit religious institutions that fall under the accommodation will not be relieved of the “burden on religious liberty that the mandate creates,” the bishops’ statement explained. Since funds paid by the employer for other services can be used to pay for the objectionable products, “there still seems to be a funding tie between the employer and the objectionable coverage.”
In addition, there is no accommodation for self-insured plans, it noted.
For these reasons, the mandate breaks a number of federal laws, in addition to the U.S. Constitution, the bishops’ document said: “As applied to individuals and organizations with a religious objection to contraceptive coverage, the mandate violates the First Amendment, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Administrative Procedure Act.”