The Trump administration’s decision to expand exemptions to the HHS mandate on contraception coverage in health insurance is a long overdue correction of a misguided rule.
The interim rules released Oct. 6 now exempt religious employers such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, and others who object on moral grounds to covering contraceptive drugs and devices, sterilizations and abortion-inducing drugs in their employee health plans.
A statement by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops called the new rules a “return to common sense, long-standing federal practice, and peaceful coexistence between church and state.”
It certainly is that, and we hope that the interim rules will soon be made permanent.
The mandate to include contraceptive coverage in health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, was controversial from the start. Many Catholic groups were among those opposing the rule during the public commentary period held by the Department of Health and Human Services before the rules were adopted.
Although churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship were always exempt from the mandate, other religiously affiliated groups were not. These included hospitals, colleges and universities, charitable agencies and other entities that identified with a religious faith.
The objections raised at the time by these groups and the U.S. Catholic bishops was that the government was redefining and restricting the right to freedom of religion, a bedrock American value, into the narrow category of freedom of worship.
The Catholic groups maintained, correctly, that their religious beliefs and practices are carried out not only by attending church services, but also in the way they conduct their lives and ministries. Service to the poor, the sick and the vulnerable of society is a mandate of Catholic and Christian religious practice, and of other faith traditions as well.
Faced with an array of lawsuits by some of these groups, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Obama administration offered an accommodation, which allowed religious employers to opt out of the mandate by signing a form stating their objection on moral or religious grounds. A third party insurer would then offer contraceptive coverage to employees who wanted it.
Many Catholic employers objected to having to fill out the form, saying it would make them complicit in arranging for something that violates their religious beliefs.
The interim rules expanding exemptions to the HHS mandate, while very much welcome, are not yet set in stone, and a public commentary period is expected to take place.
Meanwhile, opponents have already threatened the rules with lawsuits, and Twitter and other social media exploded with scare messages claiming that women’s health care is under attack. It is not.
The existing federal mandate on contraceptive coverage still applies to the vast majority of employers in this country, and contraceptive drugs and devices remain widely available to anyone who wants to use them.
In their statement applauding the new rules, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, Archbishop of Galveston-Houston and president of the USCCB, and Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the USCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, called them “good news for all Americans.”
“A government mandate that coerces people to make an impossible choice between obeying their consciences and obeying the call to serve the poor is harmful not only to Catholics but to the common good,” they said. “Religious freedom is a fundamental right for all, so when it is threatened for some, it is threatened for all.”
The two prelates, on behalf of the U.S. bishops, pledged to remain “vigilant…to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.”
They have our full support.