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Religious Tolerance logo

In a religious freedom/liberty conflict among religious
employers, employees, and students, who wins?

The HHS regulations. Reactions to the regulations.

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This topic is continued from the previous essay

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The HHS regulations:

Based on the Board's report, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius issued a group of regulations during 2011-AUG to be effective on 2012-AUG-01. They require most health insurance plans to provide "preventive services for women including recommended contraceptive services" without co-payments, co-insurance or deductibles. Ultimately, however, it is up to the employee to decide whether to actually use these services.

In a news release dated 2012-JAN-20, the effective date of the regulations was extended by a year to 2013-AUG for non-profit employers "who, based on religious beliefs, do not currently provide contraceptive coverage in their insurance plan."

Secretary Sebelius concluded her news release:

"Scientists have abundant evidence that birth control has significant health benefits for women and their families, is documented to significantly reduce health costs, and is the most commonly taken drug in America by young and middle-aged women. This rule will provide women with greater access to contraception by requiring coverage and by prohibiting cost sharing.

This decision was made after very careful consideration, including the important concerns some have raised about religious liberty. I believe this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services. The administration remains fully committed to its partnerships with faith-based organizations, which promote healthy communities and serve the common good.  And this final rule will have no impact on the protections that existing conscience laws and regulations give to health care providers." 1

When the Catholic hierarchy strongly objected to the regulations, HHS adopted a compromise: insurance companies would offer preventive services to employees, but would charge the employers a fixed amount per employee whether the latter made use of the services or not. This way, when an individual employee decided to obtain contraceptives, the employer would not have to pay a higher premium for that employee.

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Reactions to the HHS regulations:

  • 2012-JAN-06: The Baptist Press reported that:
    "Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, joined 60 others -- almost entirely evangelical Christians, plus two Jewish leaders -- in a letter to affirm they are deeply concerned about the "contraceptive mandate," as it has become known, and its weak exemption for religious employers. Land also had submitted public comments in September to protest the guidelines. ... The letter endorsed by Land and the others sought to assure Obama they are in solidarity with Roman Catholics who have protested the HHS rules. While the news media has depicted only Catholic opposition, they wrote "to stress that religious organizations and leaders of other faiths are also deeply troubled by and opposed to the mandate and the narrow exemption," they said in the Dec. 21 letter." 7

Their main concern appears to be that: "The contraceptives covered under the guidelines include drugs that can cause abortions." This is a belief widely held among religious conservatives, but one which has been shown to be invalid by medical researchers.

  • 2012-JAN-29: By this date, Belmont Abbey College, a Catholic institution, and Colorado Christian University, which is interdenominational, have sued HHS on the basis that the regulation violates their right to freedom of religion -- presumably the freedom to overrule students' wishes. This was followed up by dozens of other Catholic dioceses, charities, and schools including the University of Notre Dame. The law firm Jones Day is representing the groups without cost.

    Andrea Saul, spokesperson for Mitt Romney (R), who is the leading Republican candidate for the Presidency, said that he regards the regulation as wrong. She said: "This is a direct attack on religious liberty and will not stand in a Romney presidency." She also stated that Romney has promised to end the Title X program that provides family planning services to millions of women.2 It is perhaps worth noting that cancellation of either the HHS regulation or Title X program would result in a very significant increase in abortions.

  • 2012-JAN-30: Michael Gerson, an opinion writer for the Washington Post wrote:

    "In politics, the timing is often the message. On Jan. 20 — three days before the annual March for Life — the Obama administration announced its final decision that Catholic universities, hospitals and charities will be compelled to pay for health insurance that covers sterilization, contraceptives and abortifacients *. ..."

    "Obama chose to substantially burden a religious belief, by the most intrusive means, for a less-than-compelling state purpose -- a marginal increase in access to contraceptives that are easily available elsewhere. The religious exemption granted by Obamacare is narrower than anywhere else in federal law — essentially covering the delivery of homilies and the distribution of sacraments. Serving the poor and healing the sick are regarded as secular pursuits — a determination that would have surprised Christianity’s founder.

    Both radicalism and maliciousness are at work in Obama’s decision — an edict delivered with a sneer. It is the most transparently anti-Catholic maneuver by the federal government since the Blaine Amendment was proposed in 1875 — a measure designed to diminish public tolerance of Romanism, then regarded as foreign, authoritarian and illiberal. Modern liberalism has progressed to the point of adopting the attitudes and methods of 19th-century Republican nativists." 3

  • * The reference to "abortifacients" apparently refers to emergency conception or EC. Religious conservatives generally believe that this medication can cause an abortion. Some believe that it primarily works by causing an abortion. Physicians, medical researchers, religious liberals, secularists, etc. generally believe that EC works only by preventing ovulation or conception.

  • 2012-FEB-01: Cecilia Munoz, writing for the White House Blog, emphasized some of the effects of the HHS regulation, including:

    • Religious institutions, like denominations, churches, synagogues, mosques, etc. are exempt from the regulation.

    • No physician or other health care provider will be required to prescribe contraceptives.

    • Women employees who want contraceptives will be able to obtain it free; women who don't want to use contraceptives will not have to use them.

    • Abortifacient drugs like RU-486 are not covered by this regulation.

    • Most Americans live in one of the 28 states that already require contraception to be provided in health insurance plans.

    • Most women, including 98% of Catholic women, have used contraception.

    • The National Business Group on Health estimates that is would cost employers 15 to 17% more to not provide contraceptive coverage than to provide it. Savings include the reduced costs of unintended and unhealthy pregnancies, employee absences, and reduced productivity. 4

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  • 2012-FEB-04: Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, wrote a response to Gerson's article referring to the Catholic hierarchy:
    "Michael Gerson imputed nefarious motives to President Obama for his administration’s requirement that contraception be made more affordable and available for American workers. He lamented the decision’s effects on a bishop, a priest, and the vice president. Tellingly missing from this analysis: the profound and beneficial effects on the millions of American women and their families, Catholic and non-Catholic, Democrat, Republican and independent, whose health-care decisions are too often thwarted by a small, powerful cadre of men who have zero credibility with many lay Catholics when it comes to contraception. Churches across the country are filled with good Catholics, the majority of whom use contraception and have no objection to it." 5
  • 2012-FEB-04: Karen S. Smith, a reader of the Washington Post, also commented on Gerson's article:

    "Conservative religious groups, and in particular the Catholic Church, are outraged over President Obama’s decision to require secular institutions run by religious groups to abide by employment laws. In his Jan. 31 column, 'Catholics betrayed,' Michael Gerson elaborated on the claim by such groups that this decision radically curtails the freedom of Catholics to practice their religion because it forces them to fund health-care practices that the church deems unacceptable, such as contraception and abortion. Yet the law in question does not force any employee to use such services; it requires only that employer-provided health-care plans not be subject to the approval of the church hierarchy."

    "Mr. Gerson’s claim amounted to an assertion that the free exercise of religion necessarily includes the freedom to impose religious beliefs on nonbelievers."

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How you may have arrived here:

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "A statement by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius," HHS, 3012-JAN-20, at:
  2. Denise Grady, "Ruling on Contraception draws battle lines at Catholic Colleges," New York Times, 2012-JAN-29, at:
  3. Michael Gerson, "Obama plays his Catholic allies for fools," Washington Post, 2012-JAN0-30, at:
  4. Cecilia Munoz, "Health reform, preventive services, and religious institutions," The White House Blog, 2012-FEB-01, at:
  5. "Workers, not Catholic hierarchy, should choose their health care," Washington Post, 2012-FEB-04, at:
  6. Rachel Zoll, "Bishops Take Religious Freedom Fight to Each State, Associated Press, 2012-JUN-21, at:
  7. Tom Strode, "Letter to Obama: It's not just Catholics who oppose HSS over 'contraception mandate'," Baptist Press, 2012-JAN-06, at:

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Copyright © 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance 
Originally written: 2012-JUN-23
Latest update: 2012-AUG-18
Author: B.A. Robinson

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