WASHINGTON (BP) — The Southern Baptist Convention’s ethics entity has issued both a fact sheet about the Obama administration’s contraceptive/abortion mandate and a call for support of a bill to restore conscience protections missing from the controversial requirement.
The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) posted the fact sheet on its website Feb. 24 and, on the same day, distributed an email alert urging Southern Baptists and others to contact their senators in support of legislation expected to be voted on soon.
The efforts are the latest by the ERLC in combating a final rule announced Jan. 20 by the Department of Health and Human Services that requires all health plans to cover contraceptives and sterilizations as preventive services without cost to employees. The contraceptives, as designated by the federal government, include some drugs that can cause abortions by blocking implantation of tiny embryos.
The ERLC — as well as other Southern Baptist entities, evangelical leaders and the Roman Catholic Church — has especially decried the Obama administration’s failure to provide adequate protection for the religious freedom and conscience rights of religious institutions and other employers. The religious exemption in the rule is insufficient to protect religious hospitals, schools and social service ministries, as well as some churches, critics have pointed out.
ERLC President Richard Land said in the email alert, “As we continue to emphasize, this issue is not about contraceptives. Instead, it is about conscience and religious freedom. And we must not allow this assault on our First Amendment freedoms to stand.”
The ERLC called for citizens to ask their senators to support the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, S. 1467. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri — a Southern Baptist — is designed to provide conscience protections in the mandate. A Senate vote on the proposal as part of a transportation bill is expected the week of Feb. 27 to March 2.
Here is the full text of the ERLC fact sheet, which is titled “The threat to religious freedom: The Obama administration’s contraceptives mandate:”
THE ISSUE: HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES MANDATE VIOLATES RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
Under a regulation issued in January by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), nearly all insurance plans will be forced to provide their employees with free access to all FDA-approved contraceptives. This mandate includes coverage of abortion-inducing drugs like ella and Plan B (the “morning after” pill), abortion-causing IUDs, and sterilization. This mandate will force millions of Southern Baptists and other people of faith to violate their God-given and constitutionally-protected freedom of religion and conscience.
HOW THE HHS MANDATE TRAMPLES RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
Not only does the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act mark the first time the U.S. government has forced citizens to purchase a product (health insurance), the HHS contraceptives mandate marks the first time the government will force people of faith to purchase products that violate their consciences.
A MATTER OF CONSCIENCE AND RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
While some people argue that this is a contraceptives issue, it is not. Most Southern Baptists accept the use of non-abortive contraceptives within marriage. The HHS mandate goes way beyond that. It requires that all insurance plans make available abortion-causing products. This means that employers, including religious organizations, will have to make insurance plans available to their employees that violate their religious beliefs. It also means that either the employers or the employees will be required to pay for these products through their premium payments. The Obama administration has declared that religious conviction about abortion is not an acceptable reason for exemption from this requirement. While the offense is about abortion, the dominant issue is the government’s determination to violate the constitutionally-protected right to freedom of conscience. No one should be forced by the government to buy or subsidize products that result in the killing of innocent human beings in violation of their consciences. What is at stake is whether our nation will protect our God-given and constitutionally-protected freedom of religion and conscience fought for by our Baptist forebears.
The Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate represents an ongoing attempt to shrink the definition of religious exemption. Their very narrow religious exemption means that most religious groups will be required to provide access to contraceptives, including ones that cause abortions. Under the administration’s reasoning, the religious exemption does not include organizations such as local Christian schools and soup kitchens or larger entities such as Christian universities. We have real concerns that evangelical churches can even meet the administration’s four-part test — especially the third prong that requires exempted groups to primarily serve persons who share the same religious tenets, since Evangelicals are focused on reaching outside the church ranks. Those religious institutions not covered by the narrow exemption will be forced to choose one of three untenable options:
— Obey the law at the expense of their conscience.
— Cease providing coverage — which would force the employees of these religious institutions to obtain coverage with offensive provisions and could subject the religious institution employer to fines if it is considered a large employer under applicable rules.
— Provide coverage but without complying with the HHS mandate that assaults the religious institution’s conscience — which could result in fines to participants if their coverage through the religious institution employer is non-compliant.
According to the mandate, the only accommodation afforded religious institutions is a one-year extension to comply. Practically, this means religious employers morally opposed to the mandate have an additional year before they must begin violating their consciences.
NO “COMPROMISE” IN FORCE
On February 10, President Obama announced a so-called “compromise” to supposedly exempt religiously-affiliated employers morally opposed to the mandate by allowing them to shift the burden of covering contraceptives and abortifacients to their insurance companies. This is merely an accounting gimmick. Employers will still have to make abortion-causing products available in the plans they offer their employees, and the insurance companies will be recovering the cost of these products indirectly through the premiums they charge. What’s more, no such “compromise” — even if it did resolve any religious liberty concerns — actually exists in print. The president merely suggested the compromise. The original HHS regulation as printed remains unchanged. And even if the president’s “compromise” is adopted by HHS, the violation of constitutionally-protected religious conscience remains.
DIRECTLY IMPACTS SELF-INSURED RELIGIOUS INSTITUTIONS
Neither the current HHS rule nor the so-called “compromise” provides an exemption for religious employers that self-insure, which means they serve as the source of benefit payments instead of contracting with a third party. That includes GuideStone Financial Resources, the Southern Baptist Convention’s medical plan provider covering tens of thousands of pastors, church workers, professors, secretaries, social workers, missionaries, other agency workers, and their families. The HHS mandate reflects a sobering disregard for the unique and historic structure and role of self-insured medical programs like GuideStone and other large and established church health plans, as well as a shocking encroachment on religious freedom.
DIRECTLY IMPACTS PEOPLE OF FAITH
If the HHS mandate is not overturned or changed, many employers whose consciences are violated will have to stop providing insurance for their employees. Further, when these employees seek to purchase their own insurance plans, they will find that the Obama administration’s mandate requires every insurance plan to pay for these abortion-causing products and services. This will mean that all of us whose consciences are violated by this morally reprehensible mandate will be forced to choose between paying for these products and services, whether we use them or not, or not having insurance for ourselves and our families and paying a government fine for not having insurance.
UPSETS CHURCH AND STATE BALANCE
In recent decades, most conflicts over the church-state relationship have had to do with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, with debates about the appropriate role of faith in public life. The HHS mandate is the culmination of a shift in church-state relations that has been emerging over the last decade or so, in which the conflict has gone from potential violations of the Establishment Clause to actual violations of the Free Exercise Clause. The HHS mandate is a direct assault on how people of faith can conduct their own lives according to the dictates of their consciences. The mandate puts the federal government in the position of imposing its will on the conscience by executive edict, casting aside individual conscience and religious freedom.
SETS DANGEROUS PRECEDENT
If the federal government can force religious employers and people of faith to purchase products that offend their faith and conscience, what can’t it force them to do?
THE SOLUTION: RESTORE RELIGIOUS FREEDOM WITH RESPECT FOR RIGHTS OF CONSCIENCE ACT
Jesus instructed us to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” How now shall we respond when Caesar demands what is God’s?
Under an agreement reached by U.S. Senate leaders, the Senate is expected to vote the week of February 27 on the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act (S. 1467), which essentially would stop the contraceptives mandate from taking effect. This would safeguard employers and individuals from being forced to violate their religious convictions on contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs under health care. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), will be voted on as an amendment to a transportation bill.
With our God-given and constitutionally-protected freedoms of religion and conscience at stake, the church cannot afford to be silent.
If you agree, please contact your senators immediately and urge them to support the Blunt Amendment — the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act — to the transportation bill under Senate consideration. You can reach them through the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121 or send them an email through the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission’s website, erlc.com.
Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.