Protestants Join Catholic Church to Fight New Health Insurance Rules

Ernie Shannon's picture
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Until two weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court's upcoming hearings to consider the constitutionality of all or part of the Obama Administration’s Affordable Care Act was the hottest item with health care reform. Today, the Catholic Church’s decision to do battle with the administration over mandatory contraceptive funding has overshadowed all else regarding the new law.

On January 20, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebilius issued a final ruling on what she called “preventive services for women including contraceptive services.” In the statement, she announced that in the spirit of the Affordable Care Act, the ruling “will ensure that women with health insurance coverage will have access to the full range of the Institute of Medicine’s recommended preventive services, including all FDA-approved forms of contraception. Women will not have to forego these services because of expensive co-pays or deductibles or because an insurance plan doesn’t include contraceptive services.”

Whereas before, the administration considered allowing religious institutions and other faith-based organizations some leeway in adopting the policy, last month’s announcement all but shut the door on a flexible implementation. The administration essentially served notice to churches that there would be no exceptions regarding providing contraceptive services.

In response, a number of churches and religious groups expressed dismay and even anger about the Health and Human Services decision, but the Catholic Church went several steps further. In Sunday worship services following the government announcement, Catholic bishops in the United States authorized a statement explaining that the church would not only contest the issue, but would not comply with the ruling.

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The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops called the contraception mandate an “unprecedented attack on religious freedom.” As Cleveland Bishop Richard Lennon explained, “Unless this rule is overturned, Catholics will be compelled either to violate our consciences or to drop health care coverage for our employees.”

Anticipating a vigorous response from religious leaders, Secretary Sebilius did quality her statement with a decision to give non-profit employers, including churches, until August 2013 to comply with the ruling. She also said that her agency would “work with religious groups during this transition period to discuss their concerns.”

Catholic bishops weren’t pacified, however, Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the U. S. bishops said they would pursue every legal avenue available to them to bring an end to the mandate and said legislation, litigation, and public advocacy would all be an option. And the Catholic Church is not alone. Dr. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said “any government law requiring people of faith to violate their conscience is not only a Catholic issue.” Mohler is an influential figure not only the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, but in the wider evangelical movement. He seemed to indicate in comments made during his weekly radio program that Protestants would join with the Catholic Church in confronting this challenge to liberty.

In its lengthy statement regarding the issue of contraceptive services, the administration sought to dampen faith-based concerns by adding that it wants to continue to work with religious groups and that the ruling would not affect protections that existing conscience laws give to health care providers. And President Obama’s spokesman sought to downplay friction between the administration and faith groups by suggesting that an acceptable understanding could be reached on the subject.

However, the gauntlet has been thrown down as far as religious leaders are concerned and already diverse faiths not accustomed to working in concert are coalescing in what may be a battle of epic proportions regarding the reach of government and the freedom of religion in the United States. As the Affordable Care Act becomes more and more a part of the nation’s health care fabric, a number of the law’s provisions will likely be challenged in courts across the county. These could include the medical loss ratio, state-based health insurance exchanges, new Medicaid rules, and, of course, the mandate that every citizen purchase health insurance. But the daddy of them all may well be issues like contraceptive services that some people feel infringes on their religious liberty.

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