FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
(Lansing)—A recent U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate that forces religious employers to violate their consciences by including morally objectionable services in their health benefit plans represents a broad attack on the constitutional right to religious freedom and the conscience rights of all Americans, Michigan Catholic Conference testified today before the House Government Operations Committee.
The hearing was held to discuss House Resolution 185, sponsored by State Representative Andrea LaFontaine (R-Richmond Township), which highlights the Obama Administration’s attack on religious freedom, calls on the Administration to rescind the HHS mandate, and urges Congress to pass the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act.
“Numerous faith groups, including and especially the Catholic Church, are strongly opposed to and offended by the federal government’s effort to interfere with the First Amendment and to define who is and who is not a religious employer,” MCC Policy Advocacy Paul Stankewitz testified before the committee. “We applaud Representative LaFontaine for bringing this matter to the House of Representatives and for allowing a discussion on the importance of religious liberty and conscience rights in our state and our nation.”
In August 2011 HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced new regulations as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that would require all employers to include contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs in their health benefit plans at no cost to the employee. The administration claimed the mandate included an exemption for religious organizations, however the language that was drafted by the American Civil Liberties Union was so narrow that, in the words of U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Director of Media Relations Sister Mary Ann Walsh, “the ministry of Jesus Christ himself would not qualify.” According to the exemption, religious employers who only employ persons of their faith and only serve persons of that faith would qualify.
Following the announcement from Secretary Sebelius the Catholic Church and numerous other faith denominations began to urge HHS to expand the exemption to accommodate religious employers who serve persons of any faith or those of no faith at all, which would include Catholic hospitals, schools and social service agencies. The Catholic Church is the largest provider of these services outside of the state and federal government.
“We serve people because we are Catholic, not because the person in need is Catholic,” said Michigan Catholic Conference President and CEO Paul A. Long. “Jesus Christ calls on each and every person to serve those in need; at no point will the Catholic Church ask those looking for moral, spiritual or physical assistance for their baptismal certificate, as the Administration would seem to prefer.”
On January 20, 2012 Secretary Sebelius announced HHS would not expand the exemption and stated religious employers would be mandated by the federal government to add to their employee benefit plans coverage for services the Catholic Church and others find morally unacceptable. HHS’ refusal to accommodate religious organizations set off a firestorm across the country from editorial pages, various faith denominations and elected officials from both parties outraged that the Obama Administration had so brazenly interfered in the internal governance of religious organizations and violated their right to conscience and religious freedom.
According to Long: “The HHS mandate represents the most dangerous attack on the First Amendment right to Religious Freedom this country has witnessed in its nearly 250 year history. Never before has a presidential administration shown such disregard for a constitutional right that protects this nation’s most cherished freedom.”
Recognizing the public and political push-back the HHS mandate was receiving across the country, the president on February 10 sought to appear to back-pedal on the mandate and offer an “accommodation” that would exempt religious employers. That “accommodation,” however, did nothing to appease the conscience objections of religious employers as insurers, rather than employers, would be mandated to place the objectionable service in the employer’s benefit plan at the request of an employee. The Obama “accommodation,” according to the Michigan Catholic Conference, was nothing but “an accounting gimmick, a bad magic trick that sought to silence critics while making little to no policy change.”
“The administration has failed to understand that employers still pay for benefit plans, including the services provided in those plans, so an employee adding an objectionable service to that plan through the insurer would still compel the employer (and premium-sharing paying employees) to fund a plan that includes abortion-inducing drugs and other objectionable coverage,” said Long.
Long continued: “The Catholic Church will not acquiesce to this unjust mandate, and will not sit idle or negotiate the bedrock constitutional right to religious freedom with an administration that is seeking to define who is and who is not religious. The only solution is for the administration to withdraw the mandate and to pass the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act.”
H.R. 1179, the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, sponsored by Nebraska Congressman Jeff Fortenberry, would permit any religious employer to decline to add benefit coverage for services that are contrary to that employer’s religious beliefs. The measure is currently before the Health Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, chaired by Congressman Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph).
House Resolution 185 passed the Michigan House Government Operations Committee this afternoon and is expected to be addressed later today by the full Michigan House of Representatives.
Michigan Catholic Conference is the official public policy voice of the Catholic Church in this state.
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