Religious groups are expressing concerns over some changes the Obama administration has proposed to the HHS mandate rules in response to its defeat in the Hobby Lobby case concerning employers having to pay for abortion-causing drugs for their employees.
"Today's announcement reinforces our commitment to providing women with access to coverage for contraception, while respecting religious considerations raised by non-profit organizations and closely held for-profit companies," Sylvia Burwell, the new HHS secretary, said in a statement Friday.
A fact sheet released by the administration reveals that an interim final rule allows religious not-for-profit organizations to write a letter to the HHS stating their objections to the mandate, instead of having to fill out a self-certification form stating their objections, and then to submit the same to the insurer as was required under an earlier rule. But it prompts those organization's insurance companies to pay for their employees' contraceptives.
The rule goes into effect immediately.
Another new rule proposed by the administration would grant the same "accommodation" to closely held for-profit corporations with religious objections, such as Hobby Lobby. But it also seeks public comment on the definition of for-profit organizations to which the rule would apply.
In their preliminary responses, religious organizations and religious freedom groups are concerned.
Lori Windham, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, called the move "latest step in the administration's long retreat on the HHS Mandate."
"After three losses in the Supreme Court and dozens of losses in courts below, the government continues to confuse the issues. The government issued over 70 pages of regulations, when all it needed to do was read the First Amendment," Windham said in a statement.
Analyzing the changes, Becket Fund noted that it's the 8th revision or "retreat," 102 cases have been filed against the mandate, that the administration has lost 90 percent of their cases, that the mandate affects tens of thousands of people who are helping the poor and healing the sick, and that this is the first time the administration has acknowledged that families do not lose their religious freedom when they open a family business.
"The government should not force religious organizations, family businesses, or individuals to be complicit in providing abortion pills to their employees or students," Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel Gregory S. Baylor said in a statement. "Notably, the administration has failed to extend its existing religious exemption to the religious owners of family businesses and to religious non-profits other than churches. That would have been the best way of respecting freedom for everyone."
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, also released a statement.
"On initial review of the government's summary of the regulations, we note with disappointment that the regulations would not broaden the 'religious employer' exemption to encompass all employers with sincerely held religious objections to the mandate," Kurtz said. "Instead, the regulations would only modify the 'accommodation,' under which the mandate still applies and still requires provision of the objectionable coverage. Also, by proposing to extend the 'accommodation' to the closely held for-profit employers that were wholly exempted by the Supreme Court's recent decision in Hobby Lobby, the proposed regulations would effectively reduce, rather than expand, the scope of religious freedom."
Russell Moore, president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, called it "another revised attempt to settle issues of religious conscience with accounting maneuvers."
"The administration is setting itself up as a mediator between God and the conscience on the question of the taking of innocent human life," Moore said. "When it comes to these contentious issues I don't necessarily expect those who disagree with us to ask 'What Would Jesus Do?' But, in this case, asking 'What Would Jefferson Do?' would be a good start."
The new rule appears to retain the two-tier status for religious groups, with "houses of worship" exempted from the mandate, while other religious organizations and certain for-profits are required to notify the government they cannot comply, Moore said. "In addition, the government will continue to require insurers of 'non-exempted' organizations to provide abortion and contraceptive drugs and devices to their employees."
"It's very disappointing that the Obama administration is doubling down on its plans to punish charities and non-profits that assist the poor and homeless, who in some cases have nowhere else to turn for assistance," said Arina Grossu, director for the Center for Human Dignity at the Family Research Council, noting that the new rule adds "absurd clerical layers" to the "accounting gimmick."
In a five to four decision, the Supreme Court ruled in June that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act applies to privately owned businesses like Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods Specialties.