National News

HHS Secretary Addresses Religious Liberty Issue

by Jennifer Brinker

ST. LOUIS (CNS) – During a visit to St. Louis, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius addressed the ongoing issue of religious liberty and the implications the Affordable Care Act and its contraceptive mandate present to business owners who have moral objections to the mandate.

Sebelius was in town Sept. 19 as part of a multi-city tour promoting the health care law.

On Oct. 1, the federal government was scheduled to open the Health Insurance Marketplace, a central location where individual consumers and small businesses can learn more about the available health care options under the Affordable Care Act.

Included in her meeting at St. Louis City Hall were St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley.

During a short media briefing, the St. Louis Review, the archdiocesan newspaper, asked Sebelius about the number of lawsuits filed by business owners who are Catholic or members of other faiths that object to the HHS mandate on religious grounds.

The mandate requires most employers in their health plans to cover contraceptives, sterilizations and some abortion-inducing drugs free of charge, even if the employer is morally opposed to such coverage.

Dozens of Lawsuits

To date, there are 72 lawsuits against the government, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Plaintiffs include Catholic colleges, dioceses and other entities, as well as individual employers.

The Department of Justice petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court Sept. 19 to review the case of retailer Hobby Lobby, which sued the government over the requirement that employers cover emergency contraceptives such as the morning-after pill or Plan B, which are considered abortifacients. The Christian family that owns the company has said being forced by the government to provide such coverage violates the family’s religious freedom.

The family has no moral objection to that part of the HHS mandate requiring the company to cover “preventive contraceptives” and will continue to cover those for employees.

Sebelius acknowledged the suits and said, “I think there has been a dispute of one area of preventive services, and there is an exemption for religious employers [and] there is a total exemption for any church-based groups.”

However, Sebelius also acknowledged that “has not been satisfactory to some for-profit employers, but frankly the litigation will continue on. The [Catholic Health Association] (CHA) enthusiastically endorsed the proposal that was put forward. We do work closely with a lot of religious organizations, universities and others, and I think that work will continue and the litigation will continue.”

New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), has called CHA support of the final HHS rules implementing the mandate “less than helpful” to the bishops’ effort to seek changes in the mandate.

“We highly value CHA’s great expertise in their ministry of healing,” he said, “but as they have been the first to say, they do not represent the magisterium of the church.”

In early July, shortly after HHS released the final rules June 28, CHA said it would work to help its member facilities implement the mandate using an accommodation as outlined by HHS for religious employers who are morally opposed to providing such coverage but are not exempted.

CHA noted the final rules were not acceptable in their entirety to all who had objected to them, including the USCCB.

The HHS “accommodation” is for religious ministries that do not fit the mandate’s exemption for religious bodies. Exempted employers are those that fit the criterion for a nonprofit organization as specified by certain sections of the federal Internal Revenue Code, namely those referring to “churches, their integrated auxiliaries, and conventions or associations of churches, as well as to the exclusively religious activities of any religious order.”

Contraceptive coverage for accommodated religious organizations with health insurance plans is to be provided separately through health insurance companies or third-party administrators who must ensure that payments for contraceptive services come from outside the objecting organization’s premiums.

The mandate does not include a conscience clause for employers who object to such coverage on moral grounds.