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Protect moral objections to mandate, ERLC tells federal agencies

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WASHINGTON (BP) – A newly proposed rule would crush the freedom of conscience of Americans with a moral objection to the provision of “life-threatening contraceptives,” a Southern Baptist entity has told the Biden administration.

The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) filed public comments Monday (April 3) in opposition to the administration’s proposal to repeal the exemption for employers’ moral objections to coverage of contraceptive services under the 2010 Affordable Care Act. The 2011 rule under President Obama that helped implement the law required coverage of contraceptives with mechanisms that can potentially induce abortions.

The commission commended, however, the proposed regulation’s continued protection for religious objections to the abortion/contraception mandate by individuals and entities.

Issued in early February, the proposed rule would rescind a 2018 regulation during the Trump administration that protected the conscience rights of individuals, nonprofit organizations and small businesses on the basis of a moral conviction apart from a specific religious belief.

The ERLC “strongly opposes this rescission,” said Hannah Daniel, the commission’s policy manager.

“Once again, the administration has unnecessarily put individuals in a position of violating their own consciences to comply with government mandates,” she told Baptist Press in written comments. “While we celebrate the preservation of the religious exemption, this proposed rule protects the consciences of fewer individuals, funnels more money to Planned Parenthood and seeks to frame objections to contraception and abortion as a fringe religious concern.

“Whether the root of one’s conviction against taking a life is rooted in faith or something else, that person’s conscience should be protected.”

The ERLC’s latest public comments marked the fourth time in a month it has expressed opposition to a rule proposed by the Biden administration.

The agencies that proposed the contraceptive rule are the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Internal Revenue Service and the Employee Benefits Security Administration of the Department of Labor.

In explaining their intention to revoke the moral exemption, the agencies said: (1) The law does not require it; (2) few entities use it; and (3) “the strong public interest in making contraceptive coverage as accessible to women as possible” outweighs moral opposition to its provision.

The 2010 law, however, permits “religious and moral exemptions” to the mandate, ERLC Vice President Miles Mullin said in his letter to the agencies.

In 2018, they decided moral exemptions were appropriate, Mullin told the agencies. “No significant developments have occurred in the interim that suggest a change is warranted, especially when the stakes – the trampling of [citizens’] consciences – are so high,” he wrote.

“[C]onscience protections are essential” to the ability of Southern Baptists to practice their faith, but they “do not believe these protections are just for religious people,” Mullin wrote. Southern Baptists believe they “are critical for all people, regardless of their specific faith convictions,” he wrote.

The U.S. Constitution “guarantees the protection of the conscience,” whether the source of the conviction is religious or moral, Mullin told the agencies. “There is a robust history of Americans, both religious and non-religious, who have moral objections to the taking of a life.”

In commending the maintenance of the religious exemption, Mullin encouraged the agencies not to back down in providing protections for religious organizations and employers. To do so “would transgress the consciences of millions of Americans,” he wrote.

The commission “commends HHS for extending this exemption to the full range of entities, including churches, nonprofit organizations, and for-profit entities which may have religious objections,” Mullin wrote.

The 2011 mandate elicited legal challenges from more than 90 religious nonprofits, including GuideStone Financial Resources of the SBC and at least seven Baptist universities. The U.S. Supreme Court nullified multiple federal appeals court decisions against GuideStone and other religious institutions in 2016.

The federally approved contraceptives for which coverage is required by the 2011 mandate include the intrauterine device (IUD) and such drugs as Plan B, the “morning-after” pill. Both the IUD and “morning-after” pill possess post-fertilization mechanisms that potentially can cause abortions by preventing implantation of tiny embryos. The rule also covers “ella,” which can act even after implantation to end the life of the child.

In other public comments to the Biden administration in the last month, the ERLC:

  • Told HHS March 6 a proposed regulation about conscience protections would diminish safeguards for the right of Americans to live according to their beliefs.
  • Protested March 14 a proposal offered by nine agencies it said would unduly burden the rights of faith-based organizations that participate in federal programs.
  • Said March 24 a proposed rule by the Department of Education would significantly reduce the religious liberty of college students.