By Michelle Bauman
The editorial board of USA Today disagreed with the Obama administration’s claim that its recent contraception mandate respects the religious freedom of groups who will be forced to comply with it.
The board said that justifications offered by Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “sidestep the central issue” of religious freedom.
Sebelius penned a Feb. 5 article in USA Today arguing that the narrow religious exemption included in the recent contraception mandate is an attempt to “strike the right balance” between respecting religious beliefs and providing “preventive health services.”
USA Today ran an accompanying editorial article arguing that the Obama administration has “failed” to strike this balance and has instead devised a policy that is “contrary to both Catholic doctrine and constitutional guarantees of religious freedom.”
The articles come amid growing controversy surrounding Sebelius’ Jan. 20 announcement that virtually all employers will soon be required to purchase health insurance plans that cover sterilization and contraception – including drugs that cause abortion – at no cost to their employees.
The move sparked massive displays of protest from religious organizations that have moral objections to the new requirements.
Although the mandate includes a religious exemption it has been heavily criticized for its narrow scope. The exemption excludes the vast majority of religious groups because it applies only to organizations that primarily restrict their employment and services to members of their own faith.
In her article, Sebelius defended free coverage of “preventive services” as “one of the key benefits of the 2010 health care law.”
She argued that “virtually all American women use contraception at some point in their lives” and that contraception has health benefits but is often prohibitively expensive.
USA Today responded in its editorial that good medical intentions “are not sufficient grounds to override religious freedom.”
It noted that the government is free to – and in fact, already does – promote contraception in other ways that do not coerce religious organizations to violate their teachings.
Sebelius said that the administration recognized that “many religious organizations have deeply held beliefs” opposing the requirements of the mandate, and has provided an exemption for “religious organizations that primarily employ people of their own faith.”
The editorial acknowledged that an exemption exists for many “churches and other houses of worship,” but observed that this exemption does not extend to “organizations that employ or serve large numbers of people of different faiths,” which is a defining element “of many Catholic colleges, hospitals and charities.”
Sebelius also justified the mandate by arguing that 28 states already “require contraception to be covered by insurance,” and eight of these states do not allow for a religious exemption.
The editorial responded by pointing out that the majority of these states have even “broader exemptions” than that offered by the federal mandate, and several others that do not have an explicit exemption still provide ways for organizations with moral objections to “get around the mandate.”
“The First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom deserves more weight than the administration allowed,” the editorial said.
It added that individuals freely choose employers and should therefore be able to choose to work for an institution that does not offer free contraception coverage.
The board argued that the government “should never try to force a religiously affiliated institution to violate a central tenet of its faith.”
USA Today editors urged the Obama administration to “reopen discussion with those affected” negatively by the mandate and seek a compromise that will “widen the exemption in a suitable way.”