By Bob Allen
A Washington-based religious-liberty watchdog group says the Obama administration should reject demands of conservative religious groups seeking to curb access to contraceptive coverage in the name of religious liberty.
“Americans want and deserve access to safe and affordable birth control,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “Put simply, the decision to use contraceptives is a personal matter and should be governed by the individual, not powerful religious lobbies.”
Americans United filed comments April 8 with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services opposing the expansion of rules that exempt houses of worship from a requirement that employers provide insurance coverage for contraceptives under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
The Obama administration also announced plans to create a broader category of religious organizations that would not qualify for the exemption but could receive accommodation to opt out of paying for contraceptive coverage if it is against their religion.
AU says expanding the original exemption is unnecessary and could pave the way for other accommodations that would violate the First Amendment.
“In the end, the provision of a comprehensive set of health-care benefits is really no different than the provision of a paycheck,” AU asserted in comments drafted by legislative director Maggie Garrett. “Employees are free to utilize both kinds of benefits in any manner that they wish, and the employer cannot reasonably be perceived to support or endorse any particular use thereof.”
Americans United argued against adding a “conscience exemption” for secular businesses like Hobby Lobby, whose Baptist owners object to paying for methods of birth control that they view as morally equivalent to having an abortion.
“For-profit organizations have entered into commercial activity as a matter of choice and as a way to earn money,” AU said. “For-profit organizations should not be allowed to reap the benefits and profits of a commercial enterprise and also be exempted from the rules, restrictions and regulations placed on all other for-profit entities.”
For-profit organizations are subject to federal, state and local laws on matters like Social Security taxes, Sunday closing and non-discrimination laws, whether or not their owners are religious, AU said.
“These obligations are part of doing business in the commercial sector,” AU said. “For-profit entities should not be exempt from the general rules covering business entities simply because they assert a religious objection.”
AU said the proposed exemption and accommodation should be amended, however, to disqualify religious organizations that accept direct grants and contracts from the government.
“Religious organizations that accept federal funds should have to adhere to the same rules as other organizations that receive federal funds,” AU argued. “It defies common sense to think that the government would loosen the rules regarding insurance coverage for religious organizations that wish to receive the benefit of public tax dollars.”
AU said exempting religious groups from requirements placed on others would “create two tiers of government workers — those whose jobs are funded by the government and those whose jobs are funded by the government but whose positions are overseen by religious organizations.”
“A worker should not be denied direct insurance coverage for contraceptives simply because the government grant funding her position is overseen by a religious organization opposed to contraceptives,” AU said.