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Coalition criticizes HHS 2-tier religious system

WASHINGTON (BP) — A diverse coalition of more than 140 Christian leaders says it has “grave” concerns over the Obama administration’s creation of a two-tiered system of religious organizations within the new health care law, and it has sent a letter to Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, urging her to abolish the division.

At issue are the department’s regulations mandating which insurance plans must cover contraceptives, including ones categorized as “emergency contraceptives” that can cause a chemical abortion.

Under the regulations set up by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), insurance plans offered by churches are not required to cover such contraceptives, but plans offered by religious organizations that are not necessarily defined as “churches” are required to cover them.

The letter, organized by the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, urges Sebelius to make all religious organizations exempt.

The June 11 letter was signed by a wide range of leaders, including Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; William J. Blacquiere, president of Bethany Christian Services, an adoption agency; Keith Wiebe, president of the American Association of Christian Schools; R. Lamar Vest, president of the American Bible Society; Ronald J. Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action; and Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

Several Baptist college presidents also signed the letter.

“Our organizations are involved in different areas of service. We belong to different faiths,” the letter says. “But we are united in opposition to the creation in federal law of two classes of religious organizations: churches — considered sufficiently focused inwardly to merit an exemption and thus full protection from the mandate; and faith-based service organizations — outwardly oriented and given a lesser degree of protection.”

Both types of religious organizations — churches and faith-based service organizations — are explicitly Christian, the letter asserts.

“Both worship-oriented and service-oriented religious organizations are authentically and equally religious organizations,” the letter says. “To use Christian terms, we owe God wholehearted and pure worship, to be sure, and yet we know also that ‘pure religion’ is ‘to look after orphans and widows in their distress’ (James 1:27). We deny that it is within the jurisdiction of the federal government to define, in place of religious communities, what constitutes true religion and authentic ministry.

“This two-class scheme protects those religious organizations focused on activities directed inward to a worship community while offering little religious freedom protection to the many religious organizations that engage in service directed outward. The scheme honors acts of worship while burdening those whose faith leads them to service in our common life. Among its many troublesome aspects, the scheme moves us further toward an unconstitutional, unhistorical, and unhealthy naked public square.”

There is only one remedy, the letter says: Eliminate the two-tiered system.

“Extend to faith-based service organizations the same exemption that the regulations currently limit to churches,” the letter says. “This would bring the preventive services regulations into line with the long-standing, respected, and court-tested provisions of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act … which provide a specific employment exemption for every kind of religious organization, whether they be defined as ‘a religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society.'”

Among other Baptists signing the letter: Joe W. Aguillard, president of Louisiana College; Lee G. Royce, president of Mississippi College; C. Pat Taylor, president of Southwest Baptist University; David Dockery, president of Union University; and Mark Foley, president of the University of Mobile.

The letter can be read online atwww.bit.ly/LI0Eea.
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Michael Foust