Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has introduced a bill that would allow all religious employers an exemption to a requirement that health care coverage include contraceptive services.
President Barack Obama has been sharply rebuked from both sides of the political spectrum for his administration's decision to require employers to carry the coverage.
"One of Barack Obama's great attractions as a presidential candidate was his sensitivity to the feelings and intellectual concerns of religious believers," wrote liberal columnist E. J. Dionne in a Jan. 29 editorial for The Washington Post. "That is why it is so remarkable that he utterly botched the admittedly difficult question of how contraceptive services should be treated under the new health care law."
Obama threw "his progressive Catholic allies under the bus" writes Dionne, a Catholic. Many Catholic leaders came out in support of Obama's healthcare law, the Affordable Care Act (2010), but are now being asked to financially support services they find unethical.
Conservative columnist Michael Gerson takes Dionne's argument a step further and says that Obama's decision is "anti-Catholic" in a Jan. 30 editorial for The Washington Post.
"Both radicalism and maliciousness are at work in Obama's decision – an edict delivered with a sneer. It is the most transparently anti-Catholic maneuver by the federal government since the Blaine Amendment was proposed in 1875 – a measure designed to diminish public tolerance of Romanism, then regarded as foreign, authoritarian and illiberal. Modern liberalism has progressed to the point of adopting the attitudes and methods of 19th-century Republican nativists."
There is an exemption in the law for religious employers, but the exemption is written so narrowly that few religious employers would qualify. Only religious institutions that primarily serve and employ co-adherents are exempt from the mandate.
Rubio's bill, The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, S.B. 2043, would, if passed, require a broader exemption to religious organizations.
The bill states, "no guideline or regulation … shall require any individual or entity to offer, provide or purchase coverage for a contraceptive or sterilization service, or related education or counseling, to which that individual or entity is opposed on the basis of religious belief."
Dionne notes that the administration's definition of religion is in opposition to the religious pluralism ideals that liberals espouse.
Conservative columnist Ross Douthat sees another danger in defining religion as only what happens among co-religionists. While many religious faiths prescribe helping others, even those who do not share their beliefs, these activities are not considered religion under the administration's definition.
"Sectarian self-segregation is O.K., but good Samaritanism is not," Douthat writes in a Jan. 28 editorial for The New York Times. "The rule suggests a preposterous scenario in which a Catholic hospital avoids paying for sterilizations and the morning-after pill by closing its doors to atheists and Muslims, and hanging out a sign saying 'no Protestants need apply.'"
Melissa Rogers, director of Wake Forest University Divinity School 's Center for Religion and Public Affairs, suggested a compromise for the Obama administration in a post for The Washington Post's "On Faith" blog.
In Hawaii, Rogers notes, coverage for contraceptive services are mandated, but religious employers can decline to cover those services as long as they provide written notification to employees with information on how to obtain coverage. Insurers in Hawaii are additionally required to offer supplemental coverage to those employees at a price comparable to how much their premiums would increase if their employer offered the coverage in the first place.
According to Dionne, the Obama administration had suggested this compromise in meetings with some Catholic service providers who found it workable. Ultimately, though, the administration decided it did not have the authority to implement the Hawaii compromise.
While the controversy is often depicted as a Catholic issue, others have pointed out that non-Catholics should be concerned as well, for at least two reasons. First, the administration's decision violates religious conscience protections inherent in the religious freedom clauses of the First Amendment. And second, the mandate also requires coverage for Plan B, or the "morning after pill," which most pro-lifers, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, view as an abortifacient.
Last month, a group of 61 non-Catholic religious leaders sent a letter to President Obama explaining that non-Catholics also have grave concerns about the contraception mandate.
"The Obama Administration's obsession with forcing mandates on the American people has now reached a new low by violating the conscience rights and religious liberties of our people," Rubio said in Tuesday press release.
"Under this President, we have a government that has grown too big, too costly and now even more overbearing by forcing religious entities to abandon their beliefs. This is a common sense bill that simply says the government can't force religious organizations to abandon the fundamental tenets of their faith because the government says so."