HHS non-committal on how agency defines rules affecting religious organizations


by Peter Grady –

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has said it will not commit to saying how narrowly it intends to interpret a rule that would only exempt religious organizations that employ and serve those who share the same faith from being required to provide abortion-inducing contraceptives.

One of Obamacare’s requirements is that health insurance plans must offer contraception services to women. Some of these services do not simply prevent a pregnancy, but actually result in killing a life after conception.

For this reason, religious institutions have decried the regulation as forcing them to go against their consciences regarding the taking of a human life. The U.S. Conference of catholic Bishops has vigorously opposed the new rule saying they should not have to choose between serving those in need and following their conscience regarding abortion.

Abortion rights supporters have decried any conscience exemptions, arguing that religious organizations do not have a right to refuse contraceptives that may cause abortions, even if it goes against the organizations’ religious beliefs.

The National Organization for Women said in an action alert that, “The federal government should not permit a solitary religious viewpoint to override good public health policy. Allowing certain faith-based organizations to avoid this statute is, in fact, promoting the private interests of a tiny religious minority. This exemption and all other refusal or conscience clauses infringe upon women’s constitutional right to freedom of religion and freedom from religion.”

Nancy Pelosi has also criticized Christian organizations and individuals for wanting to exercise their conscience rights regarding abortion.

Pelosi said allowing Catholic hospitals to have conscience protections is akin to them saying “to a woman, ‘I’m sorry you could die’ if you don’t get an abortion.” Pelosi went on to say she is a devout Catholic and those who disagree with her on abortion “have this conscience thing.”

Last Thursday, Pelosi took another swipe at religious leaders, describing America’s Roman Catholic Bishops as simply being “lobbyists in Washington D.C.”

In what seems to be an attempt to placate the concerns of religious organizations, the HHS proposed a rule that would exempt religious groups from the requirement to provide contraceptive services. However, critics say the proposed guidelines for determining what a “religious employer” is, are so rigid that almost no one will qualify.

According to the proposed rule, to qualify as a religious employer, an organization has to meet four criteria.

An organization has to have the inculcation of religious values as its purpose, primarily employ and serve persons who share its religious tenets, and be a recognized non-profit organization.

What is unclear is exactly what is meant by the phrase “share its religious tenets.”

For instance, does that mean that a Catholic hospital must primarily employ and serve not just Christians, but only Roman Catholics? While some may say it refers to Christians in general, if one were to ask Catholics, Baptists and evangelicals if they all share each other’s faith, many would answer with a resounding, “No.”

If an organization such as a Catholic or Baptist hospital were to limit employment and providing medical services to members of a specific denomination in order to qualify for the exemption the hospital would then run afoul of state and federal laws regarding discrimination.

The Gazette contacted HHS asking them exactly how narrowly they planned to interpret the requirement.

Keith Maley, a spokesman for HHS, said, “The rule is the rule, I can’t break it down any more than what it actually says.” The Gazette then asked if the section stating an organization had to “primarily serve people who share its religious tenets” referred to services such as a hospital admitting patients. He responded, “It is what it is and what it states.” Maley acknowledged that a judge could interpret it to apply to a church or other religious institution, but that was not up to the HHS to make that determination.

Maley continued to be pressed multiple times for a definition of the phrase and refused to offer specifics each time. “They are pretty specific regarding the language for what is required to qualify, but I just cannot define them further.” When asked if that meant they were still determining the meaning of the phrase, he said, “I can’t speak to that, all I can say is this is the rule that we put out. What we are responding to is public comment on the proposed rule.”

Maley went on to say that, while the comment period has closed, the HHS has not yet finalized anything regarding the rule.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, speaking for the U.S. conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Gazette that regardless of how narrowly they would choose to define it, any religious institution that serves non-Christians would not be able to qualify for the exemption under the wording.

“Under the plain language as written, Jesus Christ himself would not be able to qualify under this rule. He went around helping and healing people and did not ask for a doctrinal statement,” Walsh said.

Maley said he felt the primary reason the issue was in the news was simply because it was available for public comment. “We are simply trying to strike that balance between women’s reproductive rights and a person’s religious beliefs.”

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One Response to HHS non-committal on how agency defines rules affecting religious organizations

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