(CNSNews.com) - Witnesses told a House panel on Wednesday that the Obama administration's definition of a "religious employer" under Obamacare must change immediately, or else Catholic and other pro-life health care providers will be forced to choose between violating their consciences or curtailing access to care.
Jane Belford, the chancellor and general counsel of the Archdiocese of Washington, told the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee this is the first time federal law has tried to prevent religious employers -- such as the archdiocese -- from providing their employees with a health plan that is consistent with the Catholic Church’s moral teachings.
Belford said if the definition of religious employer is not changed, "Catholic schools that teach abortion is morally wrong could have to pay for abortifacient drugs for their employees; and Catholic health clinics that refuse to provide contraception or sterilization for patients could have to subsidize contraception and sterilization for their employees."
Rep. Joseph Pitts called the subcommittee hearing to examine how the administration is threatening conscience protections for individuals, schools, hospitals, or charities that hire or serve people of all faiths in their communities.
"It is ironic that the proponents of the health care law talked about the need to expand access to services, but the administration issues rules that could force providers to stop seeing patients because to do so could violate the core tenants of their religion," Pitts said in his opening statement.
The problem dates to August 3, when President Obama's Health and Human Services Department ordered nearly all private health plans to cover FDA-approved "contraceptive methods, sterilization procedures, and patient education and counseling" as part of their preventive services for women.
Although the rule does contain a religious exemption, it is a very narrow exemption that was deliberated tailored to apply only to a tiny fraction of religious employers, critics say.
William J. Cox, president and CEO of the Alliance of Catholic Health Care, said HHS -- in narrowly defining what a religious employer is -- "turned its back on the contributions of Catholic health care and undid centuries of religious tolerance."
Under the HHS rule, a religious employer is a non-profit organization that "inculcates" religious values and primarily hires -- and serves -- people who share its religious tenets.
Cox said the HHS definition leaves out many "employers of conscience," including Catholic hospitals, universities and social services, which serve all people in need, regardless of their religion; and whose commitment to Christian service is "not calculated to inculcate religious values."
"It is particularly ironic that HHS is substantially burdening Catholic institutional ministries because they respectfully avoid inculcating religious beliefs, and compassionately serve persons of all faith traditions and those having no faith tradition at all," Cox said.
Cox also questioned the government's "constitutional capacity" to establish a definition of religious ministry that "runs counter to a religious organization's understanding" of that ministry. "Simply stated," Cox said, "churches and religious institutions have the right to define and govern themselves free from government interference and entanglement."
Cox and other witnesses said HHS can solve the problem immediately by changing its rule to expand the definition of religious employer. They urged Congress to pass the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act (HR 1179), which aims to expand the religious exemption allowed under Obamacare.
Rep. Pitts said not only is the HHS contraceptive mandate objectionable, but so is the way the rule was issued. He noted that HHS issued the rule before conducting a formal comment period.
"In issuing the rule, HHS acknowledged that it bypassed the normal rule-making procedures in order to expedite the availability of preventive services to college students beginning the school year in August," Pitts told the hearing.
"I believe that on such a sensitive issue there should have been a formal comment period, so that all sides could weigh in on the issue, and HHS could benefit from a variety of views." Wednesday’s hearing was an attempt to air some of those views.