By Michelle Bauman
The Obama administration announced Jan. 20 that it will not expand an exemption for religious groups that object to its requirement for health insurance plans to cover sterilization and contraception – including abortion-causing drugs – free of charge.
Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said in a Jan. 20 statement that religious employers who object to providing the coverage will be required to comply with the new law by Aug. 1, 2013, one year later than the initial deadline.
Sebelius noted that “important concerns” had been “raised about religious liberty.”
Those speaking out against the mandate included many Catholic organizations, such as schools, hospitals and social agencies, which serve all people in need, regardless of their religious affiliation.
During the comment period that followed the announcement of the rule, the administration received an outpouring of criticism from believers of various religious backgrounds.
Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ pro-life committee, argued against the regulation, warning that Jesus himself would not qualify for the religious exemption.
In December, a group of more than 60 evangelical, Baptist and Jewish leaders voiced their objection to the mandate in a letter to President Obama. They observed that “religious organizations beyond the Catholic community have deep moral objections” to the proposed mandate.
Sebelius said that those concerns were given “very careful consideration” and asserted that the final rule “strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services.”
While the rule will take effect for most employers on Aug. 1, 2012, Sebelius said that there will be a one-year “delayed implementation” of the mandate for nonprofit employers who do not currently provide contraceptive coverage in their insurance plans due to religious beliefs.
“This additional year will allow these organizations more time and flexibility to adapt to this new rule,” she said.
Sebelius added that these employers will be required to inform employees “that contraceptive services are available at sites such as community health centers, public clinics, and hospitals with income-based support.”
The announcement comes one day after Pope Benedict XVI warned of “grave threats” to religious liberty in the U.S.
In an address to a group of U.S. bishops visiting the Vatican, the Pope voiced great concern over “certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion.”
He said that it is “imperative” for “the entire Catholic community” in the U.S. to realize that the threats are “hostile to Christianity.”
Concerns about freedom of conscience were raised in Aug. 2011, when Sebelius issued an interim final rule outlining the initial “preventive health services” requirement.
Although the interim rule included an exemption for religious employers, many religious organization said it was too narrow and would not include many church ministries.
To qualify for the exemption, an employer must have the purpose of teaching religious values, and must employ and serve primarily those who share its religious beliefs.
The Health and Human Services Department is currently being sued by attorneys for The Becket Fund in separate lawsuits on behalf of Belmont Abbey College and Colorado Christian University.
Hannah Smith, senior legal counsel for The Becket Fund, called the move “a shameless attempt to kick the can down the road in an election year.”
Smith said that the Obama administration knows that the mandate “cannot survive constitutional scrutiny” and is therefore “trying to delay the inevitable judgment day.”