Lawmakers Introduce Bill to Repeal Birth Control Mandate for Religious Employers

Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Diane Black (R-Tenn.) introduced legislation Tuesday that would limit the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) requirement that employers provide coverage for contraception, sterilization and some abortifacient drugs. The bill would prevent the government from penalizing religious employers who choose not to follow the mandate due to the teachings of their faith.

Citing a report by the Congressional Research Service, Sensenbrenner noted that religious employers who refuse to comply with the mandate could be required to pay $100 per day, per employee, which would add up to millions of dollars annually for some employers.

"If these taxes are levied and they are enforced, there will be no religious affiliated institutions left in this country," Sensenbrenner said.

The HHS birth control mandate was announced in January by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Sebelius argued that the mandate was necessary for women's health. Authority to issue the mandate came from the Affordable Care Act (2010), also known as "Obamacare," which was recently ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court.

There were strong objections from many religious groups who were not included in the religious exemption. The only religious groups that could obtain an exemption from the mandate are those that primarily serve co-religionists and whose primary purpose is the conveyance of religious dogma.

In a Monday op-ed for The Washington Post, Sebelius responded to many of the criticisms of the ACA, but did not mention the birth control mandate.

In February, President Barack Obama announced that religious groups with objections would not have to provide the coverage for their employees but their insurance companies must provide the coverage to any employee that asked for it, without a premium increase or co-pay.

Many religious groups said this did not go far enough. They worried that they would still be paying for the coverage through premium increases, and the proposal did nothing to address the narrow religious exemption, which many argued is an affront to religious freedom.

The mandate will go into effect on August 1 and Obama's proposal has not been codified as part of the law. Some religious groups, those that did not include birth control coverage as of February 10, 2012, will be exempt for another year due to a "safe harbor" provision.

In May, 43 Catholic agencies filed suit in federal court over the mandate, arguing that it violates their religious freedom.

Maureen Ferguson and Ashley McGuire of The Catholic Association, a lay Catholic organization, expressed support for Sensenbrenner and Black's proposed legislation.

"The President is attempting to reshape religion in this country by forcing religious organizations like Catholic Charities USA, which alone serves more than 9 million people each year, to pay millions to the government for simply practicing their faith. One would never have thought America, a shining beacon of religious freedom, would have come to this – the idea of penalizing or taxing people of faith," Ferguson and McGuire wrote Tuesday in a press release.

Sensenbrenner and Black's bill was introduced on the same day that debate in the House began on legislation to repeal the ACA. The House is scheduled to vote on that bill Wednesday.

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