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WASHINGTON (BP)—The Obama administration proposed a rule change Feb. 1 it says will appease the concerns religious organizations have about the abortion/contraceptive mandate, but legal groups who defend religious liberty called the proposal inadequate and said it fell far short of what is needed.
Religious groups had hoped the Department of Health and Human Services would announce that all religious organizations—universities, hospitals and charities—are exempt from the mandate, which requires employers to carry health insurance plans covering contraceptives and drugs that can cause chemical abortions. Churches, for example, are exempt from the mandate. Instead, HHS issued a rule it says allows for employees to obtain contraceptives and abortion-causing drugs without the religious employer taking part in the process. Religious liberty groups say employers still will be involved.
The proposal also does nothing to help businesses such as Bible publisher Tyndale House or Christian-owned Hobby Lobby or any other for-profit whose owners have religious objections to contraceptives and/or abortion-causing drugs.
“Having reviewed this proposed rule, we ... have to say we’re extremely disappointed,” Kyle Duncan, general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said in a conference call with reporters. Becket Fund has helped lead the legal charge against the mandate. More than 40 lawsuits have been filed against the mandate. Duncan called the proposal “radically inadequate.”
According to an HHS website, under the proposal, the religious employer “would not have to contract, arrange, pay or refer for any contraceptive coverage to which they object on religious grounds.” Employees “would receive contraceptive coverage through separate individual health insurance policies, without cost sharing or additional premiums.” The insurance company would be required to offer the drugs for free, HHS said.
Religious organizations that are self-insured would have to contact a third party administrator, which would “work with a health insurance issuer to provide separate, individual health insurance policies at no cost for participants.”
Religious liberty groups had multiple objections to the proposal. First, the groups said, religious organizations still will be required to carry an insurance plan that is tied to coverage of contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs. Second, religious employers—particularly those who are self-insured—will be acting as “conduits” with health providers to ensure their employees can obtain the drugs. Third, it’s unclear who is paying for the “free drugs.” As some religious commentators were suggesting: Will insurance companies simply raise rates—and thereby pass the cost for the abortion-causing drugs on to the religious organization?
Duncan said religious organizations are “going to have to carefully consider whether this accommodation really doesn’t change the moral landscape at all. It’s going to be up to them to make that determination. We believe they’re going to have some serious concerns about remaining unacceptably involved in the provision of these drugs and devices.”
Alliance Defending Freedom senior legal counsel Matt Bowman said the proposal still infringes on religious liberty.
“Religious non-profits will, in fact, be forced to provide an insurance plan with a provider that gives the religious group’s employees abortion-pill coverage in direct connection with that plan, the coverage is definitely not free, and the coverage is imposed ‘automatically’ even against the objection of many employees who don’t want free abortion-pill coverage for themselves or their daughters,” Bowman said.
To qualify for the proposal, an organization must self-certify that it “holds itself out as a religious organization,” according to HHS. Ironically that could mean that many of the nation’s leading pro-life organizations—despite being non-profits—won’t qualify for the accommodation because they’re technically not religious organizations.
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