Friday, December 23, 2011


By Sarah Torres

President Barack Obama is considering granting a broader exemption to religious organizations from rules that require health insurance issuers to provide women with free contraceptives – including those which cause early abortions – sterilizations and related education and counseling, all of which are prohibited by the Catholic Church.  Catholic Belmont Abbey College is suing the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) over the rule, and more than 18 Catholic colleges and groups have written HHS protesting the rule.  Many Protestant groups can also be expected to object to the mandate because of their objection to contraceptives which cause early abortions.

The current rule, implementing Obamacare, exempts religious organizations whose purpose is the inculcation of religious values and that employ and serve primarily persons who share those religious beliefs.  The organization must also be non-profit as defined by the Internal Revenue Code.

Religious hospitals, charitable service organizations, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, adoption agencies and colleges are not exempted under the rule.

For most religious organizations, the inculcation of religious values is only one purpose, and many of them employ and serve people who do not share their beliefs.  As the Becket Fund points out, religious hospitals, charitable service organizations, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, adoption agencies and colleges have a long history of feeding the hungry, educating children, providing medical care in hospitals, and providing other much-needed social services to those who need them most.

Without a true exemption for religious organizations, the rule violates the First Amendment to the United States Constitution which says that Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion.  Religious groups’ refusal to support contraceptives, including abortifacients, and related counseling, constitutes a religious exercise.

The rule also violates religious organizations’ First Amendment freedom of speech rights by forcing them to pay for education and counseling that conflicts with their religious beliefs and teachings against pre-marital sex, contraception, sterilization and abortion.

“A monk at Belmont Abbey may preach on Sunday that pre-marital sex, contraception, and abortions are immoral, but on Monday, the government forces him to pay for students to receive the very drugs and procedures he denounced,” says Hannah Smith, Senior Legal Counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty which represents Belmont.

The penalty for non-compliance – heavy yearly fines and a prohibition on offering health plans altogether – would put religious groups at such a competitive disadvantage to attract sufficient staff and students that they could be forced to close, says the Becket Fund, leaving many of the poor without needed services.

The New York Times reports that Democrats in Congress object to broadening the exemption, saying it would keep contraception out of reach for millions of women.  NARAL Pro-Choice America President Nancy Keenan has said, “Birth control is essential for women’s health,” according to the Washington Times.

Even if free contraceptives are essential to women’s health, obtaining them does not depend on forcing religious groups to provide them against their sincerely held moral convictions.  Those who truly cannot afford contraceptives can either obtain them at family planning clinics funded by Title X of the Public Health Service Act or move to a non-objecting employer or college.

All employers, whether operating for profit or not, and whether or not they serve or employ people who share their religious beliefs, have a Constitutional right to the exercise of their religion unburdened by the government.  Insurance companies have a right not to offer such coverage, and individuals have the right not to enroll in such coverage.

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