To address concerns about how this rule would affect the religious freedom of those who oppose contraception for religious reasons, the guidelines exempted houses of worship from including contraceptive coverage in their insurance plans…but many argued that the religious exemption was not broad enough and lobbied the Obama Administration to grant the extension to all religiously-affiliated employers such as hospitals, schools and charities.
At the end of January, the Obama Administration reaffirmed its narrow religious exemption and requirement that religiously-affiliated employers comply with the rules on contraceptive coverage, though granted them an additional year to make the necessary adjustments to their insurance plans.
The administration’s reaffirmation of its narrow religious exemption led to a firestorm of emotional and heated debates over the next few weeks – debates that erupted into an all-out media frenzy once many of the presidential candidates weighed in. And whether the debates were framed as a “war on women” or a “war on religion,” one thing was for sure, they were everywhere: in the newspapers, on television and radio programs and on social media sites and blogs morning, noon and night.
Numerous religious organizations – the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in particular – raised concerns that requiring religiously-affiliated employers to pay for contraception or even to provide information to employees on where else to receive these services violates their religious freedom. Many struggled with this issue, and the staff at Interfaith Alliance was no exception. We recognized that the President’s intentions with providing access to contraceptive services were good, but we also recognized that those who raised concerns did indeed have a religious freedom right at stake.
This debate eventually resulted in a congressional hearing on religious liberty held by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The hearing – which called a panel composed entirely of male clergy – further fueled emotions on both sides of the debate. Indeed, the debate was ultimately an issue of balancing equally important priorities: protecting religious freedom for all and protecting women’s access to necessary health care.
Finally, on February 10th – after three weeks of nonstop debate – President Obama announced an alternative proposal that further expanded the religious exemption to include religiously-affiliated organizations such as hospitals, schools and charities, while at the same time standing by his commitment to women’s access to reproductive health care. President Obama took faith-based organizations out of the role of middle man by instead requiring an individual’s insurance company to directly offer contraceptive services at no cost.
Shortly after the announcement, Rev. Gaddy issued a statement commending President Obama for protecting religious freedom while also providing for the rights of women to access contraceptive services. Rev. Gaddy noted that the President’s proposal “provides a path to full access to contraception without placing an undue burden on religious institutions that have a theological objection.” He further applauded the plan’s effect on future policies as it does not allow any one religious perspective to dictate public policy.
While we were very pleased with the President’s alternative proposal, we know well enough that many – particularly those on the far right – were not satisfied. Just last month, the Senate voted on the Blunt Amendment, a bill proposed by Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) that would have allowed any employer to deny coverage of any healthcare service to their employees on the basis of their religious or moral convictions. While there were not enough votes to pass the Blunt Amendment in the end, the vote was close. Politicians in Washington have vowed to revisit this issue, and lawmakers in state legislatures around the country are now considering their own version of the Blunt Amendment and its broad “conscience” exemption for employers. And so the debate continues…