Proposed Changes to Controversial HHS Mandate Under Fire by USCCB

by Sofia Infante

 

 

Catholic Bishops have expressed their displeasure with the controversial HHS mandate put in place by the Obama administration. The mandate requires employers to provide health insurance that covers control pills, sterilization, and medications that can cause early abortion. In its Oct. 8 comments to the Department of Health and Human Services, the US Bishops’ Conference contended, “[T]he mandate continues to substantially burden the religious liberty of stakeholders with religious objections to the mandated coverage… Because it does not further a compelling government interest by the means least restrictive of religious exercise, the mandate continues to violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

Anthony Picarello and Michael Moses, general counsel and associate general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops argue that despite the changes to the mandate, it fails to respect religious freedom. Further, they commented that the proposed changes do not constitute a fundamental change to the mandate and fail to address “the vast majority of individual and institutional stakeholders with religious or moral objections to contraceptive coverage.”

 

The comments come after an invitation for public comment following a series of changes made to the controversial federal birth control mandate when the Supreme Court ruled in the Hobby Lobby case.  The Court ruled against the federal birth control mandate in regards to two family owned for profit businesses. The businesses argued that the mandate forced them to violate their deeply held beliefs. Even though the mandate offers a religious exemption for houses of worship and affiliated faith organizations, it does not extend to other businesses such as food shelters, hospitals, or schools, which are not affiliated with houses of worship.

 

These religious groups have been offered an “accommodation,” which allows them to sign an authorization form directing an insurer or another third party administrator to provide the contraceptive coverage. However, many religious groups have opposed this accommodation arguing that it still requires them to authorize coverage that they are morally opposed to.

 

The administration plans to extend the accommodation to closely held for profit businesses, which previously were offered neither a religious exemption nor an accommodation. Picarrillo and Moses argue that the accommodation has in fact, made “the current situation worse for closely held for-profit organizations with religious objections to contraceptive coverage” by extending the accommodation to closely held for profit businesses that the Supreme Court had ruled to be exempt. Under the new provision, closely held for profit businesses would be allowed to notify the department of Health and Human Services of their religious objection. The government would then contact insurers or third party administrators to provide the coverage.

 

The bishops noted that this accommodation still forces pro-life businesses to supply the government with everything it needs to carry out the contraceptive health coverage. Picarillo and Moses also condemned the different ways of treating houses of worship, non-profit religious organizations, and for profit companies, stating that the mandate creates a two-tiered notion of religious freedom within the federal government, which threatens to distort the notion of religious liberty for everyone. 

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