The brouhaha over contraception for Catholic churches and charities began with a ruling issued by Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius a few weeks ago. The ruling, as part of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), would require that all companies provide their employees with health insurance that included contraception, abortion-inducing drugs, and sterilization at no out-of-pocket cost.
As originally drafted, the rule exempted churches, but not religious charities, schools and nonprofit organizations. Since the Catholic Church teaches that birth control is wrong, the HHS rule put Catholic groups in the uncomfortable position of being forced to purchase a service they believed to be morally wrong, a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee against laws preventing the free exercise of religion. The controversy provides a stark example of the difference between freedom of religion and the “freedom of worship” that is often referenced by members of the Obama Administration.
The ruling also mandates that insurance policies cover abortion-inducing drugs, which many other religions besides the Catholics oppose. Ironically, the Affordable Care Act was passed because President Obama signed an executive order that convinced pro-life Democrats that federal funds would not be used for abortion. Now, under Sebelius’ ruling, federal funds are not being used, but the government is compelling religious groups to use their own money to pay for drugs that cause abortions.
The United States has a long history of including exemptions in legislation to respect the freedoms of religion and conscience. In particular, laws have been passed to protect doctors and pharmacists who believe that abortion is wrong and choose not to involve themselves in abortion procedures or fill prescriptions for abortion-inducing drugs.
Even though the Obama Administration gave the religious organizations an extra year to comply with the ruling, the result was a firestorm of opposition. Many Catholic bishops announced their intention to not comply with the HHS ruling. Religious leaders of other faiths joined them in protesting the president’s disregard for the freedom of conscience. Chuck Colson, a prominent evangelical leader, urged Christians to sign a petition asking President Obama to overturn the ruling and suggested that the time for civil disobedience may be near.
Georgia has several Catholic hospitals, including St. Joseph’s in Atlanta, which could be affected by the policy. In addition, the Catholic Church operates other charities in Georgia that include services from disaster relief to pregnancy counseling and adoptions. If the rule stands, these organizations could be forced to choose between abandoning their principles or using their money to pay hefty government fines instead of helping people.
As Democratic congressmen began to side with the religious groups against the rule, President Obama unveiled a compromise on Friday in a speech in which he equated pregnancy with an illness. In his speech, which is available on Youtube, the president proposed a compromise in which religious organizations with a conscientious objection would not have to pay for the undesired coverages. In those cases, “the insurance company, not the hospital, not the charity, will be required to reach out and offer the woman contraceptive care free of charge, without co-pays, and without hassles.”
The compromise left several questions unanswered. Most obvious is the question of who pays. President Obama’s new ruling mandates that women not be charged for the contraceptive care, but nothing is free. If the insurance companies are forced to provide the coverage and are unable to pass the costs along to the religious groups for whom the women work, they will most likely raise the cost of insurance for nonreligious groups and companies. Essentially, insurance rates will be increased so that the government can force contraceptive and abortion coverage on groups that don’t want it.
Another question is how groups that self-insure would be treated under the new law. When a group self-insures, it uses its own money to pay medical claims without purchasing insurance. Therefore, there would be no insurance company to “reach out” and provide the contraceptive coverage. In a statement on its website, the Archdiocese of Atlanta pointed out that it, like many Catholic institutions, is self-insured.
Most importantly, religious groups are still being forced to accept insurance coverages that they find immoral, even though they are not be forced to pay for them directly. Likewise, nonreligious groups would still be required to pay for the coverages, even if they find them objectionable.
Consequently, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has said in a statement , “The only complete solution to this religious liberty problem is for HHS to rescind the mandate of these objectionable services.” The statement continues, “We will therefore continue–with no less vigor, no less sense of urgency–our efforts to correct this problem through the other two branches of government.” The bishops then call upon Congress to pass the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, which would allow health plans to decline coverage that is against religious beliefs.
At this point, it appears unlikely that President Obama’s proposed compromise will result in a solution to the crisis of conscience. Even though most Americans support the right to use birth control, they oppose government attempts to force it on religious organizations. With Americans split on abortion, there is likely to be even less support to force abortion-inducing drugs on religious groups. A further retreat by the Obama Administration is likely in the coming weeks in order to avoid alienating Catholic and independent voters.
Originally published on Examiner.com: