(CNSNews.com) - The Department of Health and Human Services on Friday set the stage for a massive showdown between the federal government of the United States and American Christians who believe the government has no right to force them to act against their faith by mandating that they buy, provide or facilitate health-care coverage that includes sterilizations, contraception, or abortion-inducing drugs.
HHS released a new proposed regulation under the Obamacare law that the department presented as an accommodation to religious “organizations” that object to providing sterilizations, contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs in their health care plans. However, the proposal does not truly expand the exceedingly narrow religious exemption presented in the initial regulation, which was finalized last year, and continues to offer no exemption at all to Christian individuals or business owners.
“There really is no expansion of the religious exemption,” said Leonard Leo, a Washington attorney, who is a board member of The Catholic Association, a group of Catholic lay persons dedicated to applying the teachings and principles of the church to the issues of the day.
"The HHS mandate announcement today changes nothing, it is just another accounting gimmick and the HHS mandate continues to be a violation of civil rights, religious freedom and First Amendment rights,” said Maureen Ferguson, senior policy advisor to The Catholic Association. “Catholic institutions and other faith based organizations, including hospitals and universities and private employers, still do not get their First Amendment rights back and are still being forced to either violate their faith or pay crippling government fines for practicing their faith."
The original regulation, finalized by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in January 2012, said virtually all health care plans in the United States must provide all women of child-bearing age with cost-free coverage for sterilizations, contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs.
The Catholic Church holds that all three of these things are intrinsically immoral and that Catholics cannot be involved in them. Many Christians of other denominations object to the fact that the regulation requires coverage for abortion-inducing drugs.
The original regulation provided an exemption that applied only to houses of worship themselves and their immediate auxiliaries. To qualify, an institution needed to meet four criteria:1) It needed to be organized under the section of the Internal Revenue Code used by churches per se, 2) be primarily employed in the inculcation of religious tenets, 3) employ primarily people of its own faith, and 4) serve primarily people of its own faith.
This exemption did not extend to Catholic charities, hospitals and schools.
The original regulation also offered no conscience exemption at all to individual employees or business owners. Thus, Catholics and other Christians who objected to sterilizations, artificial contraception and abortion would be forced by the government to buy and/or provide health care plans that covered these things, paid for these things, and facilitated these things.
On June 13, the Catholic bishops of the United States unanimously adopted a statement calling the regulation an “unjust and illegal mandate.” The unanimous Catholic bishops said that the regulation not only would violate the free exercise of religion of Catholic institutions by forcing these institutions to act against the teachings of the Catholic faith, but also would violate the rights of individual Catholic workers and business owners.
“The HHS mandate creates still a third class, those with no conscience protection at all: individuals who, in their daily lives, strive constantly to act in accordance with their faith and moral values,” said the unanimous Catholic bishops. “They, too, face a government mandate to aid in providing ‘services’ contrary to those values—whether in their sponsoring of, and payment for, insurance as employers; their payment of insurance premiums as employees; or as insurers themselves—without even the semblance of an exemption.”
Around the country, more than 40 lawsuits were filed against the regulations. Plaintiffs ranged from the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.; to the EWTN television channel; to Hercules Industries, a heating and air-conditioning company owned by a Catholic family; to Hobby Lobby, a retail chain owned by a Christian family.
The new proposed regulation redefines a “religious employer” to mean only those institutions organized under the Internal Revenue Code section used by houses of worship. “The Department believes that this proposal would not expand the universe of employer plans that would qualify for the exemption beyond that which was intended in the 2012 final rules,” said a statement HHS released Friday.
Additionally, the regulation says that when a non-profit that “holds itself out as a religious organization” buys a health-care plan for its employees, the insurance company would have to set up a separate plan that it provides to those employees free of charge and that gives the employees free sterilizations, contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs.
When a non-profit that “holds itself out as a religious organization” is self-insured, the third-party administrator would be required to work with a health insurance provider to have that provider create a free policy that gives the covered employees free sterilizations, contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs.
When providing their employees with a health-care plan, these religious non-profits would be required by the government to trigger the provision of free abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilizations to their employees and an insurance provider who would be forced by the government to provide those things for free.
After HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius finalized the original regulation in January 2012, many of the Catholic bishops of the United States had the priests of their diocese read a letter to their parishoners from the pulpit. In this letter, the bishops said: "We cannot--we will not--comply with this unjust law."
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