Bill to Exempt Religious Groups From Obamacare Mandate Introduced; 'We All Must Respect Our Different Beliefs,' Sen. Lankford Says

Oklahoma Senator James Lankford speaks at a pro-life protest outside of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on July 28, 2015.
Oklahoma Senator James Lankford speaks at a pro-life protest outside of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on July 28, 2015. | (Photo: The Christian Post/Samuel Smith)

A bill has been introduced in the Senate that would protect the freedom of religious organizations, institutions and businesses that believe an Affordable Care Act mandate, or "accommodation," requiring the coverage of contraception and abortion-inducing drugs in employee or student health insurance plans violates their religious beliefs.

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla. announced Tuesday morning that he and 13 other senators have introduced the Health Care Conscience Rights Act in the Senate to go along with a similar bill introduced in the House by Reps. Diane Black, R-Tenn., Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., and John Fleming, R-La. in February.

The act would provide an exemption to the "burdensome" Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare," Department of Health and Human Services mandate to religious businesses, schools, charities, and other organizations and would ensure that those institutions are not forced to choose between following the law and compromising their religious beliefs on issues like birth control and abortion-inducing drugs.

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Currently, organizations that choose not to provide coverage for contraception or abortifacients in employee health plans are required to pay costly penalties to the Internal Revenue Service.

"Our nation is divided on various issues, but the fabric of America is built on the First Amendment rights of free speech and the free exercise of religion," Lankford, a 47-year-old former Southern Baptist youth director, said in a statement. "This should be something we all agree on."

The bill would also prevent the federal government or any state or local government that receives federal funding from subjecting "a health professional, a hospital, a provider-sponsored organization, a health maintenance organization, an accountable care organization, a health insurance plan, or any other kind of health care facility, organization, or plan to discriminate on the basis that the entity refuses to participate in abortion-related activities."

Among the 13 original co-sponsors of Lankford's bill are Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz, Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Meanwhile, the House version of the measure has amassed 152 co-sponsors including two Democrats.

"It is possible for people with opposing views to live together in peace but we all must respect our different beliefs," Lankford added. "The federal government should respect freedom and conscience rights for everyone; this bill would assure that happens."

The bill also creates a cause of action should governments violate the act and gives federal courts the ability to issue "injunctions and orders preventing the disbursement of all or a portion of federal financial assistance until the prohibited conduct has ceased."

"The federal government has no business infringing on Americans' right to religious liberty protected under the Constitution," McCain said in a statement. "This bill would protect all Americans' religious freedom, which has come under attack by Obamacare, and ensure that no American is forced pay for abortion-related services that violate their firmly held religious beliefs."

Although there is no indication on whether the measures will be put up for vote, Lankford's office is hopeful that a vote will come this fall.

The bill's introduction comes a little less than a month after a federal court ruled that four Oklahoma Christian universities and the Little Sisters of the Poor, a non-profit organization of nuns who aid the elderly, must obey the contraception mandate accommodation for para-church groups.

The U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Obamacare mandate provides religious institutions with an opt-out accommodation, stating that all the institutions have to do is notify the Department of Health and Human Services to exempt themselves. But after an organization notifies the department, the government then works with the insurance company or a third-party provider to make sure that contraception is provided to employees or students.

Lawyers argued that forcing the organizations to abide by the accommodation guidelines violates the institutions' religious beliefs because they are still be asked to participate in an activity they find morally objectionable.

According to estimates, the Little Sisters of the Poor would be subject to paying about $2.5 million in penalties by refusing to abide by the Obamacare mandate.

"The court is wrong to punish people of faith for making decisions consistent with that faith," Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel Gregory Baylor stated after the ruling. "The government should not force religious organizations to be involved in providing abortion pills to their employees or students."

On July 10, Wheaton College, a nondenominational Christian liberal arts school in Illinois, announced that it will no longer offer health insurance plans to its students because of the school's objection to the Obamacare birth control mandate.

"What has brought us here is about student health insurance, but it's bigger than student health insurance," Paul Chelsen, Wheaton's vice president of student development, said during a student information session. "What really breaks my heart is that there are real people that are affected by our decision. But if we don't win this case, the implications down the road in terms of what the government will tell us what we can and cannot do will be potentially more significant."

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