A Major Victory for Religious Freedom

After years of regulatory and courtroom battling, the Government has finally recognized that it was a violation of religious liberty to impose what we have long called the “HHS Mandate” on those with religious objections to contraception, abortion-causing drugs and sterilization. That mandate was cooked out of thin air by the previous Administration under the purported authority of the Affordable Care Act. The current Administration has now issued new rules that give relief to religious and other organizations, as well as individuals.

This is a major victory, and we should express our gratitude to the President and his Administration, particularly those in the Department of Health and Human Services.

The sweep of the new rules is very broad. First, the admission that the original (and the many revised) rules violated the religious freedom of institutions and individuals (direct quotations from the new proposed rules are in italics):

  • “We have concluded that requiring certain objecting entities or individuals to choose between the Mandate, the accommodation, or penalties for noncompliance imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise under RFRA.” This corrects the error of the previous Administration, which stubbornly insisted that the Mandate did not impose a burden on religious belief.
  • “Our reconsideration of these issues has also led us to conclude… that the Mandate imposes a substantial burden on the religious beliefs of individual employees who oppose contraceptive coverage and would be able to obtain a plan that omits contraception…” Under the original Mandate, individuals with religious objections had no hope of any relief.
  • “the Departments have concluded that the application of the Mandate to entities with sincerely held religious objections to it does not serve a compelling governmental interest.”This is a huge concession, and reverses the adamant — and hardly credible — insistence by the previous Administration that riding roughshod over the religious objections served a vital public interest.
  • “In the Departments’ view, a broader exemption is a more direct, effective means of satisfying all bona fide religious objectors.” Note the new emphasis here of actually showing respect for religious objectors, instead of brushing them aside, which was the attitude of the previous Administration.

Now, the specifics, which also show a broad desire to protect religious liberty:

  • “With respect to employers that sponsor group health plans, the new language… provides exemptions for employers that object to coverage of all or a subset of contraceptives or sterilization and related patient education and counseling based on sincerely held religious beliefs.” This is the most significant provision, because it allows all employers with religious organizations to opt out of the offensive coverage without going through any bureaucratic process.
  • “Consistent with the restated exemption, exempt entities will not be required to comply with a self-certification process.” This removes one of the most objectionable provisions of the previous Mandate, which essentially required religious organizations to give a permission slip for offensive services to be provided — putting them in direct cooperation with evil.
  • “the Departments do not limit the Guidelines exemption with reference to nonprofit status… the rules extend the exemption to the plans of closely held for-profit entities. This is consistent with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hobby Lobby… the rules extend the exemption to the plans of for-profit entities that are not closely held.” This is a huge expansion of the exemption, because it will not just be limited to organizations that are non-profit or to those for-profit entities that satisfy standards that vary from state to state to determine if they are “closely held”.
  • “These interim final rules extend the exemption… to health insurance issuers offering group or individual health insurance coverage that sincerely hold their own religious objections to providing coverage for contraceptive services.” This would also allow insurance companies with religious values to operate, providing a potential safe harbor from these and other morally offensive measures.
  • “This individual exemption allows plan sponsors and issuers that do not specifically object to contraceptive coverage to offer religiously acceptable coverage to their participants or subscribers who do object, while offering coverage that includes contraception to participants or subscribers who do not object.” Another major victory, this would permit — but not require — insurers to offer objecting individuals to opt out of the offensive coverage.

This is the result of steadfast opposition and litigation by many organizations and individuals who refused to surrender their religious principles  to over-reaching, ideologically-driven government regulation. Particuarly worthy of mention are the great defenders of religious freedom at Alliance Defending Freedom and Becket.

We can legitimately celebrate this victory, and thank God that our government has shown a new-found respect for our first and most precious freedom.

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