Friday, January 20, 2012

Alright, this is huge...

Ever notice how potentially unpopular decisions/announcements are always made on late Friday afternoon, to avoid a week-long press cycle? The hope, of course, is that by Monday, this will be "old" news.

But this is NOT going away.

As much as we try to avoid the muddy waters of politics on SFC, this news goes beyond politics. This, my friends, affects religious liberty.

The news:

So, what's the big news? Let me deliver it to our readers in the (obviously gleeful) words of a left-leaning site, ThinkProgress (emphasis mine):

Today, in a huge victory for women’s health, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced that most employers will be required to cover contraception in their health plans, along with other preventive services, with no cost-sharing such as co-pays or deductibles. This means that after years of trying to get birth control covered to the same extent that health plans cover Viagra, our country will finally have nearly universal coverage of contraception.

Opponents of contraception had lobbied hard for a broad exemption that would have allowed any religiously-affiliated employer to opt out of providing such coverage. Fortunately, the Obama administration rejected that push and decided to maintain the narrow religious exemption that it initially proposed. Only houses of worship and other religious nonprofits that primarily employ and serve people of the same faith will be exempt. Religiously-affiliated employers who do not qualify for the exemption and are not currently offering contraceptive coverage may apply for transitional relief for a one-year period to give them time to determine how to comply with the rule.

The breakdown:

Essentially, the current administration announced late this afternoon, that it is rescinding a key exemption that was granted to religious entities by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (signed into law by President Obama in 2010). The original exemption gave broad legal assurances to churches as well as to religious-affiliated institutions (such as universities and hospitals), that they would not be required to pay for health insurance coverage for prescriptions and procedures that violated their own religious beliefs.

With today's announcement, that exemption is now being limited only to "certain religious organizations." In other words, while local religious bodies (i.e. churches, synagogues, etc.) will not have to provide contraception coverage to their paid staffs, other "[n]onprofit employers who, based on religious beliefs, do not currently provide contraceptive coverage in their insurance plan," will now - under federal mandate - be forced to provide such coverage, regardless of whether or not such actions go against the religious creeds of these employers.

Who would be affected?

Who are the "nonprofit employers" that Secretary Sebelius now excludes from a religious exemption? They would include religiously-affiliated hospitals, religiously-affiliated schools and universities, and religiously-affiliated social and charitable organizations. This means that, under this new rule, Catholic hospitals will be required by federal law to provide their employees with health insurance which pays for contraceptives (even potentially abortifacient ones) and for procedures such as sterilization - products and procedures which are explicitly forbidden in Catholic teachings. The same must be provided to employees of Catholic parochial schools, Catholic universities and of Catholic social service organizations such as Catholic Charities and Catholic-run adoption agencies.

Only religiously-affiliated employers that primarily serve and employ people of the same faith will be excluded from this new rule. Meaning, that only small and religiously-homogenous organizations will be excluded. I.e. local parish churches, dioceses and the like.

SFC analysis:

This is wrong - plain a simple. This violates the First Amendment's explicit protection of citizens' right to the free exercise of religion. To have the government force adherents of a particular religion to fund and to provide services which are clearly prohibited by the beliefs of that religion is not just wrong-headed or unfair: it is unconstitutional and, dare I say, ludicrously dangerous to the fundamental rights of all American citizens as guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.

When the president's health care bill was passed in 2010, it did so with the high-profile support of some Catholics: namely the Catholic Health Association and the head of the Leadership Conference of Women's Religious. Those who joined these groups in support of the health care bill did so in direct contradiction of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and others, who warned that they did not see sufficient legal protection for religious groups who could not, as a matter of religious belief and conscience, fund or provide coverage for contraceptives, abortifacients and sterilizations. Those Catholic groups who supported the bill against the bishops' wishes, rallied around the "religious exemption" that was written into the original health care bill. This exemption, according to the bill's loyal supporters, would remain in place and would protect religious employers.

Well, that blew up. As many suspected, the administration is now claiming that these religious exemptions were only "interim final" rules. Now, more than a year and a half later, the rules are changing. It seems that our Catholic bishops were almost prophetic in their refusal to lend any support to the health care bill. Seemingly, they were right, while the Catholic Health Association, the Leadership Conference of Women's Religious and others were either hoodwinked by some in the administration and/or were just dead wrong.

At any rate, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has already issued a response to today's late-breaking news.

Stay tuned, ladies and gentlemen, because this has just begun...