Religous exemption from contraceptives not broad enough

On May 17, 2009, President Obama spoke to the graduates of Notre Dame University.

In his remarks, he stated, “Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women.”

In August 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a press release relating to insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

It stated most new and renewed health insurance plans will be required to cover contraceptive services and counseling services.

The HHS Health Resources and Services Administration website noted an exemption will be available from these requirements for “certain religious employers.”

However, on January 20 of this year, HHS issued a statement that stated: “Nonprofit employers who, based on religious beliefs, do not currently provide contraceptive coverage in their insurance plan will be provided an additional year, until August 1, 2013, to comply with the new law. Employers wishing to take advantage of the additional year must certify that they qualify for the delayed implementation.”

The January announcement completely reverses the August news release, which recognized an exemption for “religious employers.”

As Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, remarked: “In effect … we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences.”

Because of the restrictive definition given to “religious employer” in the legislation, it is highly unlikely most Catholic schools, hospitals and charitable organizations would qualify for the exemption.

They teach, minister to, and care for people of all faiths, in accordance with the Church’s teaching regarding the dignity of the human person.

So much for the exemption for “certain religious employers.” So much for “a sensible conscience clause.” Thanks for nothing.

Some major points must be made.

In the August 2011 news release, HHS indirectly referred to pregnancy and contraception as a “problem.”

This choice of wording to describe pregnancy and its implications is problematic. When did pregnancy become transformed from a medical condition to a “problem”?

The HHS rules violate the “freedom of exercise” clause in the First Amendment regarding religion.

Many Catholics and others have serious moral objections to sterilization and certain contraceptive methods.

The HHS rules also violate freedom of conscience, which has been a defining characteristic of our country since its founding.

That our nation’s government would violate such a fundamental principle is a case study in the abuse of governmental power. This abuse of power and intrusion into religious matters is unconscionable.

Historically, there has been a wide accommodation for religious doctrine in this country. In 1943 at the height of patriotic fervor during World War II, the Supreme Court ruled that a mandatory salute to the flag, objected to by Jehovah’s Witnesses, was unconstitutional.

More recently, the Court ruled that religious groups could discipline their own ministers without running afoul of disability laws.

The Affordable Care Act itself grants a “religious conscience exemption”: for religious groups that object to certain forms of insurance.

A pluralistic society requires respect for the beliefs of those who favor contraception and abortion.

However, those who are opposed to these should demand and/or receive the same treatment, as President Obama promised at Notre Dame.

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