WASHINGTON (ABP) – The head of a Baptist religious liberty watchdog group said Feb. 8 that the Obama administration should return new health-care regulations to the drawing board to address religious liberty concerns.
The Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, requires that coverage begins in August for preventive services that include FDA-approved contraceptive methods, sterilization procedures and patient education and counseling for women.
Health and Human Services Director Kathleen Sebelius announced in January that certain religious organizations, including churches, are exempt from paying their insurers to cover contraception. Other religious organizations, including those that employ people of different faiths, qualify for a one-year transition period, giving them until Aug. 1, 2013, to comply.
Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said the exemption for churches, while important, "is insufficient and should be broadened."
Catholic and Southern Baptist leaders have protested that the contraceptive mandate would force many faith-based institutions to violate their consciences by paying for services they regard immoral on religious grounds.
“I'm not a Catholic but I stand in 100 percent solidarity with my brothers and sisters to practice their belief against government pressure,” Southern Baptist mega-church pastor and Purpose Driven Life author Rick Warren tweeted Feb. 7. “I'd go to jail rather than cave in to a government mandate that violates what God commands us to do. Would you?"
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Feb. 8 that President Obama understands some of the concerns expressed — his first job in Chicago was working with churches and community organizations — but is committed to making sure that women have access to contraception without paying extra costs no matter where they work.
“He wants to find a way to implement [contraceptive coverage] that can allay some of the concerns that have been expressed,” Carney said. “And that is why the transition period was announced at the same time that the rule was announced.”
Melissa Rogers, a former BJC staffer who now teaches at Wake Forest Divinity School, said in a Washington Post “On Faith” commentary last fall that including birth control as a preventive service sets up “competing interests” pitting the rights of religious bodies to practice their faith against the need for wider access to health care.
Walker said broadening the exemption to religious employers beyond churches would not necessarily deprive anyone of health-care coverage.
"The exemption could carry a duty of full disclosure by the employer as well as an obligation to help employees who want contraceptive coverage to get it elsewhere at a reasonable cost,” he suggested.
Established in 1946, the Baptist Joint Committee works with 15 national, state and regional U.S. Baptist bodies by providing education about and advocating for religious liberty. Its mission is to protect both the free exercise of religion and to defend against its establishment by government. While supported primarily by Baptists, the agency supports religious freedom for all faiths and those with no faith at all.
Bob Allen is managing editor of Associated Baptist Press.