Religious Liberty, the Contraceptives Mandate, and Civility
Many Americans can easily recall President Obama traveling the country to promote what would become his signature healthcare reform law and telling us that "if you like your healthcare coverage as it is, you can keep it—period." In 2009 and early 2010 he uttered these words over and over, most famously in his State of the Union address, but also routinely in public speeches and in a host of negotiations with Republicans and Democrats.
Perhaps that "period" should have been a question mark. Since a January 20 announcement by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, it's become clear that many Catholic organizations and other faith-based groups cannot rely on the President's oft-repeated promise. Catholic Charities was happy with its longstanding healthcare package, as were many Catholic universities, Jewish social-service agencies, Evangelical relief-and-development agencies and a host of other faith-based organizations. Despite the President's promise, however, the new HHS "contraceptives" mandate is the new sheriff in town, and it disallows these organizations from maintaining the old plans that were consistent with their religious convictions.
The new HHS mandate will directly affect millions of Americans beginning in 2013. Aside from a narrowly defined set of congregations, thousands of faith-based hospitals (which today serve over 1 in 6 Americans), religious schools and non-profits will be required to provide their employees with insurance packages that cover birth control and other "preventive services" that include abortifacients like Plan B and Ella.
As we've seen in the weeks immediately following the Administration's announcement, a "sleeping giant" (as one commentator described it) was awakened. Thousands of American Catholics and other advocates of religious freedom have voiced strong discontent. Inasmuch as the president heard our cry, he responded as he does best: with another speech, this time a seven-minute address from the White House, in which he "cherished" religious liberty by giving faith-based groups the privilege of outsourcing the "prevention" activities they find objectionable to their insurance companies.
But this accommodation by the White House does not resolve the moral issues at hand. Catholic groups and other organizations that are religiously and irrevocably pro-life are still required by law to provide objectionable services to their employees. Last week we learned that while the president's "compromise" did satisfy a portion of the country, 48 percent of Americans still support a full exemption for religious providers (see poll results from the Pew Research Center and The New York Times/CBS).
So this past Thursday on Capitol Hill, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform convened a hearing (available here in its entirety) to review the HHS ruling and its implications for religious groups.
Josh Good is a senior consultant who works with faith-based organizations and public policy think tanks in Washington, DC.