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February 7, 2012

End These Health Mandates Now

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The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as the “Obamacare” statute, tramples on religious liberty and makes it likely that employees of many religious institutions will lose their group health insurance.

Americans have already taken the Obama administration to the Supreme Court over the “Obamacare” individual mandate, which purports to exercise the power to regulate interstate commerce by mandating that everyone have health insurance or pay a fine. Now, in regulations implementing the health care statute, comes the contraception mandate.

This requires employers — including religious employers — that provide group health insurance to cover contraception, abortifacients and human sterilization. The mandate violates religious liberty — and makes it likely that employees of many religious institutions will lose group health insurance.

The health care statute provides that a group health plan must meet the comprehensive guidelines supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration.  As issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, those guidelines now state, “all Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptive methods, sterilization procedures and patient education and counseling for all women with reproductive capacity.”

So employer group health plans must cover all FDA-approved contraceptive methods — including contraception, sterilization procedures and what the FDA calls “emergency contraception,” like morning-after pills.

This contraception mandate commands many religious institutions to do exactly what their religious beliefs command them not to do.

For example, the Roman Catholic catechism commands that “human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception.” The papal encyclical on human life prohibits “direct interruption of the generative process already begun,” “sterilization,” and “any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation.”

A Catholic institution cannot comply with this contraception mandate without violating the tenets of its faith. So the “Obamacare” statute leaves many religious institutions, which must follow the tenets of their faiths, with no alternative but to stop making group health insurance available to their employees — and pay any fines for failure to do so.

Although HHS was silent about the guarantee of free exercise of religion in the First Amendment, the department said in August 2011, that it sought “to provide for a religious accommodation that respects the unique relationship between a house of worship and its employees in ministerial positions.”

To that end, HHS provided a religious employer exemption — limited to nonprofit groups whose purpose is to inculcate religious values and that primarily employ and serve persons who share the organization’s religious tenets.

In short, churches would be exempt — but not the many public-serving religious hospitals, religious schools or religious charities.

The Obama administration needs to reverse course — immediately. It should respect the First Amendment freedom of religion and exempt religious hospitals, schools and charities from its contraception mandate, so they can keep their faith and continue to provide group health insurance to their employees.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius recently rejected requests to exempt these religious hospitals, schools and charities. She said the department would instead give them another year to comply with the contraception mandate. As if a 12-month grace period will somehow make religious institutions willing to violate the tenets of their faiths a year from now.

As a senator in 2006, Barack Obama told America that “secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.” Having talked the talk as a senator, he needs now to walk the walk as president.

He should direct Sebelius to take whatever actions are necessary to exempt the broader range of religious employers — including religious hospitals, schools and charities — from the contraceptive mandate, thereby allowing them to both follow the tenets of their faith and offer group health insurance to their employees.

The individual mandate now under challenge in the Supreme Court, and the conception mandate now under challenge in U.S. religious institutions, underscores why Congress should repeal “Obamacare” and move the country to a patient-centered, market-based health care system.

Americans must preserve their freedom in health care and their free exercise of religion. The “Obamacare” law must go.

David Addington is vice president for Domestic and Economic Policy of The Heritage Foundation.

First appeared in Politico

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