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.
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.