Secular Groups Respond to Obama Administration’s Broadening of Religious Exemptions to Birth Control Rule

Under the Affordable Care Act, churches didn’t have to provide employees with birth control they (wrongly) believed caused abortion but other non-profit religious institutions, like Catholic hospitals and Christian colleges, were not exempt. Owners weren’t allowed to deny female employees access to comprehensive health care because of their personal religious views. That led to a number of lawsuits against the Obama administration claiming that they were violating religious freedoms.

As of yesterday, though, a new set of rules would accommodate more religious organizations so that they’re under no obligation to take care of their female employees themselves.

The government’s new offer, in a proposed regulation, has two parts.

Administration officials said it would more simply define the religious organizations that are exempt from the requirement altogether. For example, a mosque whose food pantry serves the whole community would not have to comply.

For other religious employers, the proposal attempts to create a buffer between them and contraception coverage. Female employees would still have free access through insurers or a third party, but the employer would not have to arrange for the coverage or pay for it. Insurers would be reimbursed for any costs by a credit against fees owed the government.

While women will still have access to birth control and contraception through insurers, it says a lot about these religious organizations that they fought so hard to make life more difficult for employees who needed birth control.

It also says a lot about how our government works, that they would allow religious groups to get out of a law because they have a faulty understanding of what birth control actually does (hint: not abortion) but they wouldn’t make that same exemption for other groups.

The Center For Inquiry is concerned about the implications of the new ruling:

CFI is concerned that this is too broad and open a definition of “religious employer.” Consider just a few questions: How will HHS determine what does and does not count as a “religious objection”? What does it mean for an outfit to “hold itself out as a religious organization”? For example, will a humanitarian organization with a devoutly religious board of directors that claims it directs the organization based on Biblical principles qualify for exemption? Or are there other qualities included in “holds itself out as a religious organization”? By what standards will HHS determine all of these questions?

We are also concerned by the possibility that non-profit employers which are not “religious” could still receive exemption.

Broadly speaking, we are glad the administration appears to be holding steady on its commitment to provide women with free access to safe, preventative health care, and full control over their reproductive systems. But there was no need to change and make more complex what was already a sound policy. The new definition of “religious employer,” along with the other exemption guidelines announced today, could feasibly allow for more exemptions, which would needlessly complicate the process by which women arrange for and receive free contraceptive coverage.

The Secular Coalition for America echoed the concern (in an emailed press release):

“Both the revised definition and the new accommodations are short term solutions that create a long-term problem,” said Executive Director Edwina Rogers. “The Obama Administration’s commitment to ensuring women have access to preventive health services is commendable. But religious groups’ insistence on a new definition of ‘religious freedom’ has only created further bureaucracy for employers, insurers, and the federal government to navigate. These new accommodations signal that religious institutions — particularly those faiths opposed to contraception — should be treated differently. What is to stop these institutions from gaining preferential treatment with respect to any laws with which they disagree?”

“While seeking to strike a balance between religious objections and providing access to contraception, the Obama Administration tilted the scales in favor of religious beliefs over tremendous health benefits for women,” said Ms. Rogers.

Catholics for Choice applauds the fact that women will be able to get the health care they need, but they are worried about how the administration caved in to religious pressure:

“While protecting contraceptive access under the ACA is a win for women, the administration’s caving in to lobbying from conservative religious pressure groups is a loss for everyone. American Catholics who support contraceptive coverage, who believe in the separation of church and state and who were hoping for change in Washington are disappointed today.”

Even Americans United for Separation of Church and State thinks this new proposal goes too far:

“Birth control is a fact of modern life,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “This proposed rule acknowledges that reality while going out of its way to accommodate religious groups. This should more than satisfy religiously affiliated institutions that have objected to the birth control mandate.

Incredibly, some Christian Right groups think the new law doesn’t go far enough because religiously-owned secular businesses like Hobby Lobby are still not exempt from fully covering their female employees.

The question we have to be wondering is what else religious business will be able to get away with now that they’ve won this battle.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Red Yates

    I’m still shocked that the federal government is going to single out certain religious beliefs for a subsidy at all, let alone expand that subsidy. This sort of discrimination in coverage by any employer seems like a good argument for a single-payer system. Then no employer would be forced to spend money on any medicines they don’t believe in.

  • Quintin van Zuijlen

    A good government allows differing views, but prohibits acting upon them in case they conflict with laws not targetted against those who hold those views. This is not a good act of government.

  • primenumbers

    Obama has shown again he doesn’t know what secular means, doesn’t believe in the secular ideal of equality for all under the law, and is ignoring the 1st amendment.

  • Baby_Raptor

    I don’t think that’s what he’s doing here.

    I think this is yet another case of his chronic bad habit of thinking “Well, maybe if I give them THIS concession, THIS reach across the aisle, they’ll stop being hooting dickholes and work with me.”

  • Baby_Raptor

    I don’t think that’s what he’s doing here.

    I think this is yet another case of his chronic bad habit of thinking “Well, maybe if I give them THIS concession, THIS reach across the aisle, they’ll stop being hooting dickholes and work with me.”

  • Son of Flash

    I’m going to play Devil’s Advocate here for a moment and say that, of all the results that were likely to actually happen, this is probably the best we were going to get. It’s nice to talk about the federal government standing up to the religious lobby on an issue where it (the religious) was so clearly in the wrong, but the fact of the matter is that too many people see this as a ‘religious freedom’ issue. They’re wrong, but they’d continue to fight tooth and nail against providing proper healthcare to their employees as long as they perceived it to be ‘violating their consciences.’

    While this is hardly ideal, I think we need to focus on the positives- first, this give the Obama administration a point to say ‘Hey, we’re working with you guys. We’re meeting you halfway. You really going to demand even more?’ (of course) Second, employees still get access to the contraceptives they need, even if the process is more convoluted. Third, secular businesses that just happen to be owned by conservative people can’t just deny their employees coverage because of their own personal beliefs. Unless they can show that, say, Hobby Lobby is a true religious institution (it’s not), they need to do the right thing.

    Yes, it’s annoying that- once again- the federal government is forced to bow to pressure and do something unnecessary to placate a bunch of people who aren’t going to be satisfied with anything less that preferential treatment, but all in all it could have been far worse. A few years ago it probably would have been. I’ll take what I can get.

  • Greg G.

    I don’t want my tax dollars reimbursing religious employers because they won’t take care of their employees.

    Let’s just go with the single-payer system.

  • Stev84

    The only possible exemption can be for churches. Literally churches. A school, non-profit, university or hospital isn’t a church and shouldn’t get any special treatment. Despicable.

  • C Peterson

    Even allowing churches to opt out violates the spirit of the First Amendment, let alone other businesses. Ultimately, I think all that we can do is wait for one or two of the more corrupt or incompetent members of the Supreme Court to die and be replaced, and then for some secular organization to bring suit. Now is probably not the time for that, however.

  • Ibis3

    I don’t think even churches should get an exemption. It’s up to the church to police their members about whatever they deem sinful, not the insurance companies or the government to subsidize religious doctrine. It reminds me of bars that want exemption from a smoking bylaw. Yes, the customers are choosing to go to your club, but for the servers, that’s their workplace and they should have it as smoke-free as everyone else.

    Of course, the whole thing should be taken out of the hands of employers completely–why should they have any involvement in a person’s private medical issues in the first place?–and Americans should push for universal public health care.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Thing is, he’d already given them one cop-out in the name of meeting them halfway. They, of course, demanded more. And now he’s caving.

    So what happens when they whine about this like they inevitably will?

    These idiots aren’t going to exit Idiotlandia by us being nice to them. They’re only going to face reality if we drag them kicking and screaming. They don’t care who they Fuck over. They don’t care if people are hurt. And they don’t care that they’re either stupid or purposely lying. They need their asses held over the fire, or they’re going to continue peddling the same bullshit and hurting more people.

    At the very least, they need to be made to keep their bullshit to themselves. They have the right to remain stubbornly ignorant if they wish. But we need to make it clear that they won’t be able to force their crap on others.

  • primenumbers

    That would show poor judgment to their thinking though. They will never work with him and he should have realized that by now.

  • Joan

    When my sister was in law school, her doctor prescribed birth control pills for her in order to control her horrific menstrual cramps, which were causing her to miss class. They really helped her. When I was going through menopause, my doctor prescribed birth control pills in an effort to reduce my hot flashes. (The usual hormone supplements were causing mood swings, so she thought we’d try the birth control pills.) Point is, birth control pills can be prescribed for many reasons not having to do with controlling reproduction. Will there be any exceptions made for women who might need these pills for other health-related reasons? And, if so, will they have to disclose these reasons to their employers (which would be a big violation of privacy, as far as I’m concerned)? Would it help if we simply renamed these pills? (Instead of calling them “birth control pills,” call them estrogen/progestin supplements or something?) Anyway, this whole thing pisses me off.

  • chicago dyke

    I’m about to start taking the “mini pill” hormone replacement supplements, myself, for irregular period and low energy problems i’m having. obviously i don’t need birth control as none of the women i sleep with have semen squirting penises. ;-)

  • Carmelita Spats

    So Jewish and Muslim employers can opt out of subsidizing the pork industry, through farm subsidies, on religious grounds? What about Scientologists and psychiatric drugs? Jehovah’s and blood transfusions? Religion=superstition.

  • bernardaB

    Please don’t turn away from this video lecture even though the guy is a reverend doctor Randall Balman. He gives an fascinating revision of the history of the rise of the religious right. The True Origins of the Religious Right Given the videos of Hemant on Youtube I have seen, I am quite sure he will be interested. Particularly that birth control and abortion were not the origin of the rise of the religious evangelical right, though the Catholic hierarchy always had its head in the sand.

  • Edmond

    Someone should tell the Christian Scientists that they don’t need to provide ANY medical coverage AT ALL.

  • Keulan

    Obama needs to stop caving in to religious groups on this. They’re going to keep demanding more accomodations, because their goal isn’t really religious freedom. They’re against birth control entirely, and if they had their way they would make it impossible for women to get birth control at all. They’ve been accomodated far to much already. Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.

  • Marco Conti

    That is really the only viable solution. There are rumblings of SP being picked up again as a cause and I hope that more and more people will realize that SP is a far better, cheaper and simpler option to the mess we have now, which Obamacare will not really solve..

  • Benny Cemoli

    And yet, the majority of the voting population put Obama right back into office because, and I quote a friend of mine, “he is the least worst choice for president because the Republicans are going to screw us over.”

    Kinda funny that Obama waited until after the election and inauguration to spring this one on the American population.

    He’s got four more years left and the phrase, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” (bad grammar and all) comes to mind.


  • Brian Macker

    Yeah, because a leftist is forcing you to pay for birth control of some group let’s force socialism on everyone. Makes sense, NOT!

    People like you two advocate pissing in the pool and when that causes problems you suggest swimming in the chess pool like it is the only other option, and are totally oblivious to the issues being experienced by those who are forced to take that route.

  • Brian Macker

    Everyone should be able to opt out of Obamacare. You Democrats want an insurance company to take care of you cradle to grave then make one and join it. don’t force everyone else to join your crazy schemes.

  • Brian Macker

    The servers didn’t have to apply for a job at a bar either.

  • Brian Macker

    He ignores many other amendments so why not the first also?

  • Brian Macker

    The evil idiot went to a racist church for decades. What do you expect?

  • C Peterson

    Societal health care only works if everyone participates. It depends on the healthy contributing to balance the costs of the sick. There’s a reason most of the developed world has so much better health care than the U.S.

    Opting out of a societal health care system makes as much sense as opting out of paying for research, opting out of Social Security, or opting out of paying for the military.

    (I’m not a Democrat.)

  • Guesty Guest

    Uh, you paying for other people’s coverage is already a done deal, it’s just that it is slightly indirect right now. The question is how to do it efficiently. Or are you going to go on a tirade about how Medicare is socialism?

  • Baal

    At the risk of sounding like I’m making a slippery slope argument, I can imagine several scenarios where the religious could inflate boundary of the new exemption beyond all reason. This is a bad solution.

  • Marvin McConoughey

    Regardless of your feelings, the federal health care law is now in place and will remain so for the foreseeable future. All women should have equal rights under the law, whether one thinks it should have passed or not.