One of the major issues with the Affordable Care Act, the health care reform legislation known as Obama Care, is that it is still a work in progress with much of its finer points still being defined and created. Over the last several years, bits and pieces of the Act have been rolled out with most due for compliance by 2014.
While the Affordable Care Act will be fodder for the up coming presidential election, various rulings and interpretations continue to be issued. One such ruling last month by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandates that nearly all health insurance plans cover sterilizations and FDA-approved contraceptives, including those that induce abortions. The Act specifies that churches and other houses of worship will be exempt from the requirement to offer insurance that covers contraception. To be eligible these institutions must show the government that they hire and serve primarily people of their own faith and have the inculcation of religious values as their primary purpose. Unfortunately some churches serve a broader focus in their communities by providing services to the underprivileged regardless of their faith affiliation. These faith-based organizations would be denied an exemption because of their service to the general public at large.
Regardless of how you may feel about issues of contraception, abortion, the Affordable Care Act or religious beliefs, the issue of this ruling goes right to the heart of our First Amendment rights. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1809, “No provision in our constitution ought to be dearer to man that that which protects the right of conscience against the enterprise of civil authority.”
The regulation is due to take effect for individual citizens and private businesses on Aug. 1, 2012, but religious institutions have until Aug. 13, 2013 to become compliant. The regulation mandates that certain FDA-approved contraceptives that can induce abortions such as Plan B and Ella, be covered through the health insurance plans without any fees or co-payments. In the past, the federal government respected conscientious objections to procedures such as sterilization that may violate religious beliefs or moral convictions. A law in effect since 1973 says that no individual is required to take part in “any part of a health service program or research activity funded in whole or in part under a program administered by the Secretary of Health and Human Services” if it is “contrary to his/her religious beliefs or moral convictions” (42 USC 300a-7 (d)). Even the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, which requires most of its health plans to cover contraception, exempts religious affiliated plans and protects the conscience rights of health professionals in other plans. Currently no federal law requires anyone to purchase, sell, sponsor or be covered by a private health plan that violates his/her conscience.
Unless HHS reverses direction or the ACA is rescinded an organization seeking exemption must meet four strict criteria, including the requirement that it both hire and serve primarily people of its own faith. Faith based schools, kitchens, clinics and hospitals would have to eject their non-faith employees, students, clients and patients or purchase health coverage that violates their moral and religious teachings. The exemption provides no protection at all to sponsors and providers of health plans for the general public, to people who own businesses or to individuals with a moral or religious objection to these procedures, essentially forcing them to pay for the services received by others.
In 2006, then Senator Barack Obama emphasized the “need to understand the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practice.”
This country was founded by people of faith. Would our country even exist today or would we enjoy the many freedoms we’ve come to take for granted without their commitment to follow their beliefs” It’s one thing for the people of the country to collectively alter their rights. It’s something very different for those rights to be chipped away by a few non-elected bureaucrats with the simple draft of a document.
While we may all believe it is important for every American to have access to quality health care, we need to stand firm on sacrificing our First Amendment rights in pursuit of that goal. If as a united people we do not stand now and be counted, what will be the next challenge forced upon a people who for over 235 years have relied on its government to protect the freedoms our forefathers died to win and preserve?
Dan Alexander is publisher and CEO of Denton Publications. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.