Editors' Note: This article is part of a Public Square conversation on Religious Liberty. Read other perspectives here.
In early 2012, the Obama administration announced a new regulation from Health and Human Services concerning requirements for employer-provided health insurance: all such plans would now have to offer contraception and sterilization services to employees without co-pays; employers would have to pay for those services either directly, or indirectly through raised premiums, to cover the increased costs to the risk pool. HHS offered a religious exemption, but only to places of worship or social organizations that limited employment and service to members of their own faith and/or denomination.
Needless to say, this has massive implications for religious expression, and not just for faith-based organizations serving communities at-large, which also find themselves outside of the exemption. Any Catholic hospital that serves non-Catholic patients and employs non-Catholics, any Lutheran school that teaches and employs non-Lutherans, or any other faith-based operation that does not discriminate in either employment or service has to comply with the mandate. A ridiculous example would be the plight of the Little Sisters of the Poor—celibate nuns who offer hospitality to the indigent elderly, regardless of creed—who would be forced to choose between supplying their employees with free contraception and sterilization coverage, or facing fines so ruinous they would be forced to give up their mission, or restrict their service to other countries, outside of the United States.
More fundamentally—beyond these effects upon religious organizations—Americans are guaranteed the right to freedom of religious expression, as enshrined in the First Amendment. That means being able to exercise one's faith freely, absent any government compulsion to violate its doctrines, except in situations where an overriding government interest can only be served with such intrusion. Congress reaffirmed that essential value of liberty in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), signed into law more than twenty years ago by then-President Bill Clinton. That freedom of expression included business owners and employers—or at least it did until the HHS mandate.
If we faced a contraception crisis in America, it might mitigate this intrusion on personal liberty and religious expression. According to the Obama administration's own data, however, no such crisis exists. The CDC did a long-range study of unplanned pregnancies and found that 99 percent of all sexually active women who wanted to avoid pregnancy used contraception. Access to birth control was such a non-issue that it didn't even get mentioned in the study, which was published (to little fanfare) in August 2010—less than two years before HHS imposed this mandate. Even without forcing employers and insurers to pay for it (although many included it in their coverage before the HHS mandate was announced) women had no trouble obtaining their own birth control, or sterilization, when desired.
So, why did HHS impose the mandate at all? Partly because the administration wished to exploit reproductive issues within 2012's demagogic "war on women" narrative; partly because the Obama administration philosophically sees pregnancy as "a punishment" and a disease to be avoided, more than a natural consequence of sexual relations. More troublingly, though, the mandate betrays the administration's antipathy to faith, itself—one that is seen in almost all governments when they attempt to arrogate power in a society, one that marginalizes faith in order to put itself at the center of the universe.
Cardinal Raymond Burke hit close to the mark last week in an interview with the Polish magazine Polonia Christiana, in which the prefect of the Vatican's Apostolic Signatura criticized President Obama for his "anti-life and anti-family policies." Under Obama's governance, U.S. policy has become "progressively more hostile toward Christian civilization," says Burke, who also asserts that Obama's actions are an attempt to redefine religious liberty as a freedom of worship, which negates religious expression. "[H]e holds that one is free to act according to his conscience within the confines of his place of worship," Burke warned, "but that, once the person leaves the place of worship, the government can constrain him to act against his rightly-formed conscience, even in the most serious of moral questions."
Before Obamacare, there existed no compulsion to comply with an HHS mandate. The effect of this law is to remove liberty in place of compelled commerce at all levels—consumers, employers, providers, and insurers. When government arrogates the power of a command economy to itself, liberty cannot long survive. The right to free religious expression is just the first of those liberties to suffer.