A remarkable page in the history of American conscientious objection is being written by citizens throughout the United States who are standing up and saying, “We cannot—we will not—comply with this unjust law.”
These are not unemployed, bedraggled 20-somethings looking for a free pass on student loans and camping trips in downtown parks, nor are they unknowns with little influence.
These citizens are Roman Catholic bishops throughout the United States. And in statement after statement issued in diocese after diocese, many bishops are publicly declaring that they “cannot” and “will not” comply with “this unjust law.”
The unjust law in question is a mandate issued last August by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that requires non-exempt private health insurance plans to provide coverage for all FDA-approved contraception methods, sterilization, and counseling and education.
On the ground that certain FDA-approved contraceptives can sometimes cause chemical abortions, many sources are also arguing that the mandate requires private health insurance plans to provide coverage for abortion.
As James Capretta observes at National Review, not only does this new regulation require religious objectors who work for secular employers to pay for such products in their premiums, but “HHS also wants religious employers to cover such products in their health plans.”
This is a religious freedom problem for many employers, including two religious colleges that have recently challenged the mandate in court.
To make matters worse, HHS recently announced it will not broaden the rule’s exemption for religious employers. As Heritage has previously explained, religious employers qualify for the exemption only if they have the inculcation of religious values as their purpose and primarily employ and serve people who share the employer’s religious tenets.
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty says this is “the stingiest definition of a ‘religious’ organization ever to appear in federal law.” The definition clearly does not include a wide range of objecting institutions, including religious charities, hospitals, colleges, nursing homes, and universities. In addition, the exemption provides no protection to individuals who conscientiously object.
The government itself has stated that, “Most workers in employer-sponsored plans are currently covered for contraceptives,” and “many private employers already cover these services.” Another source claims that “Nine in ten employer-based insurance plans cover a full range of prescription contraceptives.”
The Obama Administration has nevertheless decided to implement a scorched-earth, last-mile policy of mandating that nearly every health insurance plan provide these morally controversial services. In so doing, the Administration has backed what the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is calling an “unprecedented” attack on religious liberty.
Congress can take steps to protect religious freedom in health care.
For example, the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act of 2011 (H.R. 1179, Representative Jeff Fortenberry, R–NE, and S. 1467, Senator Roy Blunt, R–MO) is designed “to ensure that health care stakeholders retain the right to provide, purchase, or enroll in health coverage that is consistent with their religious beliefs and moral convictions.”
In addition, Senator Marco Rubio (R–FL) has announced plans to introduce the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 2012, which specifically addresses the religious freedom problems caused by the HHS regulation.
Freedom requires vigilance and action. Religious freedom is no different.
When government officials violate freedom instead of protecting it, American citizens have a duty to take a stand and do what’s right.