Forum Center, 2/14/12

Federal Birth Control Mandate Vs. Religious Freedom

A recent decision by the Obama administration is putting it at odds with the Catholic Church and the social issue conservatives. The political battle lines have been drawn over a provision in the 2010 healthcare bill which required health insurance to cover basic preventative services dealing with pregnancy for women. An advisory group, the Institute of Medicine, had recommended covering a fuller range of contraceptive services to help prevent unwanted pregnancies. U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary, Kathleen Sibelius, adopted the institute’s recommendation including an exemption for churches. However, the order, which the Department of Health and Human Services finalized last month, eliminated a federal exemption that allowed religion-affiliated institutions to opt out of the law requiring employers to cover contraceptive services in their health insurance packages.

As such, the mandate did not exempt Catholic charities, schools, universities or hospitals. The HHS did not believe that “religious employers” should qualify for conscience protection, because they do not “serve primarily persons who share their particular religious tenets.” The Catholic Church argued that these institutions were vital to the mission of the Church, which they maintain is to serve the common good of society.

The Roman Catholic Church bans artificial methods of contraception, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops fiercely opposed the new rule. This rule, they argued, “forces religious employers and schools to sponsor and subsidize coverage that violates their beliefs” and “forces religious employees and students to purchase coverage that violates their beliefs.” The Church argued that to require these mandates violates the First Amendment and the free exercise of their religion. Many believe, including non-Catholics, that this was an assault on the broader principle of religious liberty, even if they disagree with the Church on the underlying moral question.

Women’s rights groups and other supporters argued that this was an employee benefit issue. This is not the Catholic Church having to provide a service directly. They pointed out that no Catholic hospital would be required to write a prescription or provide a pack of pills. Religious groups, they argued, should have no more control over what employees do with their insurance than with their pay checks.

Advocates say the measure is an advance for women’s reproductive rights.  A recent report cited that nearly all sexually active U.S. women had used birth control at some point in time, including 98 percent of Catholic women.

The Obama administration found a compromise to resolve the issue, perhaps because there are concerns about going into the election year at odds with the Catholic Church.  Republicans have been eager to weigh in on the topic, citing it as another example of the Obama administration’s indifference towards religious freedoms.  And Obama’s revision to the mandate, which bypasses religious institutions by requiring insurance companies to directly provide birth control, is still stirring up controversy.

Last Thursday, EWTN , a Catholic television network carried on thousands of cable systems in more than 100 countries, filed suit in U.S. District Court in Birmingham, Alabama, collectively challenging the mandate’s failure to exempt catholic organizations.

Forum Question of the Week:

Was the decision of the Obama administration to not exempt Catholic employers from the mandate requiring insurance plans to cover birth control a violation of religious freedom, or simply an employee benefit issue?

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