149 Religious Leaders to HHS Secretary: Stop 2-Class Religion Scheme

A letter signed by 149 religious leaders was sent to Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius Monday expressing concern over a two-class concept of religious organizations created by her department and other federal agencies. Churches and faith-based religious organizations should be provided the same religious freedom protections, the letter states.

Signers include both Catholics and Protestants, who are "united in opposition to the creation in federal law of two classes of religious organizations: churches -- considered sufficiently focused inwardly to merit an exemption and thus full protection from the mandate; and faith-based service organizations -- outwardly oriented and given a lesser degree of protection."

In particular, the letter points to the religious exemption provided for religious employers in the HHS birth control mandate. The mandate requires employers to provide insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization and some abortifacient drugs. Only religious institutions that primarily hire and serve coreligionists and whose primary purpose is to espouse religious doctrine qualify for the exemption. Institutions such as schools, charities and hospitals don't qualify.

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"This two-class scheme protects those religious organizations focused on activities directed inward to a worship community while offering little religious freedom protection to the many religious organizations that engage in service directed outward. The scheme honors acts of worship while burdening those whose faith leads them to service in our common life. Among its many troublesome aspects, the scheme moves us further toward an unconstitutional, unhistorical, and unhealthy naked public square," the letter states.

In February, President Barack Obama announced an accommodation for religious groups. They would not have to provide birth control coverage directly, but their insurance provider must provide the coverage at no additional premium or co-pay to any employee who wants it.

The letter notes that the signers disagree about whether the proposed accommodation provides adequate religious freedom protection, but they do not disagree about the inappropriateness of the two-class religion scheme -- an issue that has not been addressed by Obama's accommodation or the HHS Department.

Another concern noted in the letter is that the narrow religious exemption may be used as a precedent in other federal laws.

The only adequate remedy, the letter states, is for the HHS Department to rewrite the religious exemption to include the definition used in Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act: "a religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society."

The letter was organized by the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance. Signers include David Neff, editor in chief of Christianity Today; Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action; Leith Anderson, president of National Association of Evangelicals; Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and executive editor for The Christian Post; Stephan J. Bauman, president and CEO of World Relief; and Richard Stearns, president of World Vision. Signers also include a host of university and college presidents, both Catholic and Protestant.

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