Secular Coalition urges HHS not to expand religious employer exemption

 

The Secular Coalition for America yesterday submitted comments on the proposal to amend the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) final regulation on Preventive Services under the Affordable Care Act.

The Secular Coalition urged HHS to maintain the current regulation.

“The current religious employer exemption adequately accommodates religious institutions,” said Edwina Rogers, Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for America. “Any additional expansion would effectively be a government endorsement of religion—an idea fundamentally opposed to the core American values protected by the First Amendment.”

In its comments, the SCA opposed any further broadening of the definition of “religious employer”. The SCA underscored its support for the religious freedom of individuals to refuse to use preventive services, but those decisions should not be imposed by any employer, religious or secular. Additionally, the SCA strongly objected to proposals that would limit preventive services to anything less than the full range of FDA-approved contraceptive methods based on the religious ideology of opponents to the regulation.

The comments read in part: “We are concerned that the current comment period and any subsequent expansion of the religious employer exemption will only serve to further expand the definition of a ‘religious employer’ as defined by the rule. Congress has passed and the Supreme Court has upheld Free Exercise protections for explicitly religious organizations.”

In the comments, the SCA outlined four specific concerns:

  • That HHS maintain the definition of “religious employer” established in the February 15, 2012 final regulations.
  • That HHS protect female employees’ right to self-determine personal healthcare decisions irrespective of her place of employment. The contraception coverage requirement is intended to serve the compelling public health and gender equity goals of the Affordable Care Act and is in no way targeted at religion or religious practices.
  • Rights of conscience apply to individuals, not organizations or employing entities.
  • Coverage should not exclude any FDA-approved contraceptives. Restricting access to certain types of contraceptives to appease certain religious beliefs is unacceptable and a direct threat to individual liberty—especially because these medications have demonstrated numerous medical benefits to women.

“We are troubled by the insistence of certain religious groups to impose their definition of religious freedom on all Americans,” said Rogers. “The secular character of our government is a core value of our nation that protects all citizens—religious and non-religious.”

A number of groups signed the SCA’s comments, including American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Atheist Alliance of America, Camp Quest, Council for Secular Humanism, HUUmanists Association, Institute for Humanist Studies, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Council of Jewish Women, Secular Student Alliance, and the Society for Humanistic Judaism.

The proposed rulemaking by HHS, the Department of Labor, and the Internal Revenue Service focuses on the exemption provided in the final regulation for religious employers who oppose providing contraceptive services to women. This latest comment period was opened in response to objections by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that the exemption was not broad enough.

SCA previously submitted comments in September 2011 when the regulation was being developed. The comments submitted today can be found at http://www.secular.org/files/RIN%200938-AR42%20comments.pdf.

 

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