Our Beacon Forum

Religious America
By:Muhammad Rafi Karachi
Date: Monday, 13 February 2012, 4:52 pm

Center for Inquiry Urges Obama Administration Not To Retreat Any Further on HHS Regulation; Expresses Concern About Catholic Lobby’s Influence on Public Policy
On Friday, Feb. 10, the Obama Administration announced that it would continue to require health insurance providers and organizations providing health care plans to cover preventive health services, such as birth control, without charging a co-payment. However, it indicated that it would allow religiously affiliated employers not to offer contraceptive coverage directly—although their insurers would still have to offer such coverage.

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is pleased that the Obama Administration has continued to hold firm to the principle that employees must have access to contraceptive services as part of any employer-sponsored health plan and has decided to keep in place the substance of guidelines that require health insurance providers and organizations providing health care plans to cover preventive health services without charging a co-payment. Nonetheless, CFI is concerned that the administration has apparently felt obliged to modify its proposed regulation in the face of pressure, especially from the Catholic Church.

Specifically, the White House announced Friday that “if a woman works for religious employers with objections to providing contraceptive services as part of its health plan, the religious employer will not be required to provide contraception coverage, but her insurance company will be required to offer contraceptive care free of charge.” In other words, if employers object to providing free coverage for birth control, health insurance companies will have to fill in the gap.

The original regulation, initially issued in August 2011 by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), faced fierce attacks from various religious organizations ever since HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius first announced it. Most notably, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has vigorously lobbied the HHS to either eliminate the new guidelines or widely expand the current exemption clause—which covers employers whose main purpose is to promote religious doctrine and who mainly employ people of the same faith—to also include religious hospitals, charities, and universities. At that time, the Center for Inquiry urged both President Obama and Secretary Sebelius to reject religious lobbying efforts and base their policies on science and reason.

Substantively, the administration appears to be holding steady, but it is unclear whether the accommodation it has recently offered religious employers is either wise or prudent. There was no need to change what was already a sound policy. It was certainly not necessary to change the rule from a constitutional perspective. Contrary to the objections of the Catholic Church and some other groups, the regulation in no way restricts the free exercise of religion. No one is being forced to use birth control. The rule merely requires that all employers that provide secular services follow the same rules.

Moreover, although the modification the administration has offered seems designed to mollify religious critics, it is unlikely to do so. To the contrary, it may only encourage these critics to apply further political pressure.

Collectively, the new rules—which go into effect August 2012—are an important step forward for reproductive rights. Regardless of the recent political maneuvering, it appears women will have free access to safe, preventative health care, and control over their reproductive systems.

Yet CFI is concerned that the Catholic lobby has been able to exert so much influence over a major public policy decision. This drawn out debate over something as basic as birth control is a perfect example of the harmful influence of religious institutions on public policy.