Adjustment to birth-control coverage rule met with mixed reviews - Word&Way

Adjustment to birth-control coverage rule met with mixed reviews

WASHINGTON (ABP)—Some Baptist leaders applauded President Obama's announcement that in-surance companies, rather than religious institutions, will be required to provide employees' contraception coverage.

However, the head of a Southern Baptist Convention agency said the compromise proposal failed to answer the concerns of self-funded religious insurance providers.

 "This is a positive step in protecting the right of religious institutions to define themselves and accommodate religious conscience," said Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. "Leaving room for the health-care needs of women—Catholic and non-Catholic alike—to get the coverage they deserve is also important."

Melissa Rogers, director of the Center for Religion and Public Affairs at Wake Forest Divinity School, said the policy adjustment "resolves the religious liberty concerns and respects the interests of Americans who would like to have these important health benefits."

"President Obama and his administration deserve great credit for implementing a solution that honors free exercise rights and fairness," said Roger.

"I deeply appreciate the fact that the White House has taken the religious community's concerns so seriously."

But O.S. Hawkins, president of GuideStone Financial Resources, said Obama's compromise plan for mandatory coverage of contraceptives does not solve religious liberty concerns for his agency.

GuideStone's medical plan is self-funded, Hawkins said, meaning it pays its benefits directly instead of using a third-party insurance company. The president's solution—requiring insurance companies to pay directly for reproductive services of employees of religious organizations that oppose contraception—"completely ignored" the self-funded approach, Hawkins said.

"The president's statement … is an insulting affront illustrating a basic lack of understanding that this issue will not be solved by sleight-of-hand word games," Hawkins said.

"It is a fundamental matter of religious liberty that threatens the very coverage of those dedicated persons who serve our churches and affiliated organizations."

The new policy announced by the Obama administration updates a January announcement by Health and Human Services Director Kathleen Sebelius that churches would be exempt from paying for required coverage of FDA-approved contraceptive methods and sterilization procedures, but employers like religious schools and hospitals that hire people of different faiths have until August 2013 to get their house in order and start providing coverage for those services.

Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist and other religious leaders called the policy an assault on religious freedom that would force faith-based institutions to violate their consciences by paying for services they view as immoral.

The new regulation will require insurance companies to cover contraception if the non-exempted religious organization chooses not to.

Such employers will not be required to cover or subsidize birth control. Insurance companies will offer contraception coverage to women directly and free of charge, with no role for religious employers who oppose birth control.

"Religious liberty will be protected, and a law that requires free preventive care will not discriminate against women," Obama told reporters. 

"I've been confident from the start that we could work out a sensible approach here, just as we promised," he said.

While "people of good will on both sides" disagree on the issue, he said, that "doesn't mean we have to choose between individual liberty and basic fairness."

The Catholic Health Association of the United States released a statement saying it was "very pleased" with the announcement.

Rogers, a Baptist, said her own faith tradition and conscience support the use of contraceptives, but the issue for her is not birth control. Rather, it is the freedom of religious bodies "to practice their faith as they see fit, not as government sees fit."

Walker called it a "win-win solution."

"Religious freedom is the first freedom and must be protected," Walker said. "At the same time, we must be mindful of the health-care needs of all employees."