The Obama administration's selective interpretation of religious liberty.
In his June 2009 Cairo speech to the Muslim world, President Obama declared that “it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit.” However, when it comes to Catholics and other persons of faith who object to being forced to pay for their employees' birth control against their core religious convictions, Obama's answer is that they are to practice their religion as he sees fit.
On the campaign trail, Obama proudly points to his Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Obamacare regulation requiring virtually all health-care plans to provide women with cost-free sterilization, contraceptives and abortifacients.
At a rally in Virginia last week, for example, Obama must have been summoning the spirit of Georgetown Law School graduate and free birth control activist Sandra Fluke with whom Obama campaigned last August on this very same issue and who spoke at the Democratic National Convention.
Obama told his Virginia audience on October 5th that the Obamacare regulation mandating free contraception for female college students was one of the reasons "why we passed this law."
"And we are going to keep it," Obama vowed.
We can expect the issue to be raised in the upcoming debates, as the Obama campaign tries to get its mojo back with its shopworn "war on women" argument.
Obama argues that women must remain in charge of their own bodies, and that the Republicans are trying everything they can to take this right away by seeking to deny women access to birth control pills and the like. The claim is another typical Obama red herring, which sets up a false target with a misstatement of the other side's position and then shoots it down.
Obama said during his Virginia rally that no boss, insurance company or government official should "control" what health care a person gets. He must have forgotten about his own rationing board of fifteen unelected bureaucrats, known as the Independent Payment Advisory Board, which will be doing precisely that for senior citizens dependent on Medicare.
Even more to the point, access to birth control pills and other means of contraception are already ubiquitous and inexpensive. Obama is really arguing for something else. His regulation is all about mandating that someone who is religiously opposed to contraception, sterilization and abortifacients be forced to subsidize someone else's decision to purchase and use them for birth control purposes.
Obama defended the mandate as a cost-saving measure in general terms. Last March, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was much blunter. She told the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health that the Obamacare HHS mandate would save money because the "reduction in the number of pregnancies is--compensates for the cost of contraception."
Whether or not Sebelius is right on the pure cost-benefit economic analysis, her defense of the HHS mandate goes to the heart of the objections made by those who, on religious grounds, resist being forced to pay for someone else's decision to prevent a new life from coming into being.
The Obama administration says not to worry. The regulation, they argue, provides an exemption for "religious employers" and was modified to make the health insurance carriers for religiously affiliated employers, such as hospitals and universities, reimburse employees directly for their contraception, sterilization and abortifacient expenses.
Not so fast. A "religious employer" qualifying for exemption from the regulation, according to the HHS, means employers who, among other things, must hire and serve primarily those of their own faith. That narrow definition would not apply to ministries of service to the poor, the homeless, the sick, the students in religiously affiliated schools and universities, and others in need. As the Administrative Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops put it in a statement it issued last March on religious freedom: "Those deemed by HHS not to be 'religious employers' will be forced by government to violate their own teachings within their very own institutions."
The Obama administration thought it could solve this problem through a sleight of hand. Let the religiously affiliated organizations such as hospitals and universities off the hook in having to make direct payments for their employees' birth control treatments, but require their insurance carriers to do so instead. However, the truth is that religiously affiliated organizations would still be paying the insurance premiums that support these mandated reimbursements. And some organizations self-insure, which means that they would remain the direct payers.
Providing an insurance plan that does not include the mandated coverage for contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortifacients would subject the religiously affiliated employer to exorbitant penalties of $100 per day per employee. A Catholic university or hospital with tens or hundreds of employees would face potentially millions of dollars in fines per year, forcing many to close as the price of sticking to their religious beliefs. The employees could end up losing both their jobs and their health insurance coverage. University students and hospital patients will lose invaluable services, all because women like Sandra Fluke insist on free birth control at someone else's expense.
I go back to President Obama's declaration to the Muslim world that “it is important for Western countries to avoid impeding Muslim citizens from practicing religion as they see fit.” Obama went beyond this general statement. In the same speech, he apologized to the Muslim world that his country’s “rules on charitable giving have made it harder for Muslims to fulfill their religious obligation.” Obama then promised to change all that: “I'm committed to work with American Muslims to ensure that they can fulfill zakat [the Islamic duty of charitable contributions].”
Interestingly, the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, a large U.S. Islamic “charity” set up expressly to accept zakat, was convicted in 2008 by a federal jury for giving more than $12 million to the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas. Perhaps Obama simply forgot that all those tough rules on charitable giving have existed for a good reason – to prevent such front groups posing as “charities” from funneling donations to terrorists. In any case, he is willing to give Islamic charities the benefit of the doubt and ease the rules on zakat so that Muslims can practice Islam "as they see fit."
The Obama administration also went to court to force a public school district to allow one of its teachers - a Muslim woman - to take a special three-week unpaid leave during the school year in order to partake in the annual Haj pilgrimage to Mecca. Never mind the burden on the school, which would have to scramble to find suitable substitute teachers during the three week period. Never mind that such pilgrimages are required of Muslims only once in their lifetimes if they can make it. The teacher did not have to make the pilgrimage that particular year. Also, never mind that the pilgrimage to Mecca lasts only five days, not the three weeks she asked for. The school district settled rather than continue to incur escalating legal fees to defend its position. The right of the Muslim teacher to practice Islam as she saw fit was vindicated by the Obama administration.
Why are Muslims given such special accommodations, while Catholics and other persons of faith are being forced into an untenable position by the HHS mandate as they try to practice their religion as they see fit? Either they must give up doing good works through their religiously affiliated organizations or violate their core religious belief in the sanctity of life in order to comply with the HHS sterilization, contraception and abortion-inducing drug payment mandate.
The Obama administration is not only abridging the First Amendment right of free exercise of religious beliefs by virtue of the HHS mandate. It is engaging in blatant religious discrimination by not making the sort of far-reaching accommodations it extends to Muslims.
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