Less than two weeks after the Supreme Court rebuked the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for disrespecting the Constitution’s First Amendment rights for religious organizations, another arm of the Executive Branch has drawn criticism from religious liberty advocates.
The 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, dubbed by critics as "Obamacare," required almost all health insurance plans to cover contraceptive services. The U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Department’s proposed rule to implement this provision included a narrow religious exemption, so narrow that it would not apply to many faith-based service and educational organizations. Indeed, sixty religious leaders, including the heads of numerous Evangelical denominations, colleges, and service organizations, wrote to President Obama in December to highlight this point.
On Friday, January 20, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius issued a statement that the exemption would remain as is. Her response to religious liberty concerns:
Nonprofit employers who, based on religious beliefs, do not currently provide contraceptive coverage in their insurance plan, will be provided an additional year… to comply…. This additional year will allow these organizations more time and flexibility to adapt to this new rule.
Among others, Dr. Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and long-time NRB member, voiced disappointment:
Secretary Sebelius is stating that people who have religious convictions against contraceptives or particular types of contraceptives that are abortifacients will have a one-year reprieve before they will be forced to pay for health insurance… which they find unconscionable…. It's analogous to giving a man on death row a one-year stay of execution. You can follow your conscience for one more year…. This is outrageous.
Notably, exactly one week before Secretary Sebelius’ pronouncement, President Obama had issued a Religious Freedom Day proclamation honoring the anniversary of the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. He declared, “On Religious Freedom Day, we celebrate this historic milestone, reflect upon the Statute's declaration that ‘Almighty God hath created the mind free,’ and reaffirm that the American people will remain forever unshackled in matters of faith.”
By Aaron Mercer, Vice President Government Relations