Secular Coalition Calls for Boehner and U.S. House to Respect Individual Religious Liberty in HHS Ruling on Contraceptives

The Secular Coalition today called for U.S. House Speaker John Boehner and fellow members of the U.S. House of Representatives to respect the Department of Health and Human Services’ decision to require most employers to provide coverage for contraceptives and some life-saving procedures for women, including religiously affiliated businesses such as hospitals, universities, and nonprofits.

Rather than infringing on religious freedom, as Boehner claimed, the decision by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to include only a narrow religious exemption for churches and explicitly religious employers, the law actually supports the religious freedom and rights of individual Americans by allowing each person to decide for herself and himself whether contraceptive coverage is appropriate in their life—and not forcing them to follow the religious views and perspectives of their employers.

The new HHS rule will require most health insurance plans to provide contraceptive coverage without charging a co-pay, co-insurance, or a deductible.  The rule exempts churches and other houses of worship or religious employers who only employ persons of all the same faith. However, businesses that are religiously affiliated, such as hospitals, charities, and schools, would be required to provide coverage to their employees.

In a statement on the House floor yesterday, Speaker Boehner said “Americans of every faith and political persuasion” object to the HHS ruling. Boehner’s comments follow a letter read aloud in Catholic churches across the country last month, which called the rule an “assault on religious liberty.”

However, Speaker Boehner is incorrect. Prior to the decision by HHS to approve this rule, 28 states already passed their own versions of this law according to the Guttmacher Institute.

There are more than 600 Catholic health care institutions in the United States,12% of the total. These institutions provide thousands of jobs to Americans from all faiths and beliefs. In many areas of the country, Catholic health care institutions are the only health care jobs available. It is not religious liberty for an employer to be able to deny its employees the full range of preventative health care benefits, especially when those employees may not share the employer’s religious beliefs. It is true religious freedom to provide the full range of options to the individual and let him or her decide for themselves what is appropriate.

During tough economic times it does not make sense to deny women and families the preventative health care coverage they need. According to the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, women who use birth control—and did not have health care coverage for contraceptives—will save $600 per year once these new policies go into effect.

“The real assault on religious liberty is coming from those who wish to deny freedom of conscience to many Americans whose moral and health decisions may differ from those of a particular church,” said Herb Silverman, president of the Secular Coalition for America. “Religious liberty doesn’t give organizations the right to force their views, through taxpayer dollars, on those with different faiths or none—or to ignore the law.” 

According to Catholics for Choice, a 2002 study of nearly 600 religiously affiliated hospitals in the United States found that the hospitals received more than $45 billion in taxpayer funds. 

Even a majority of religious individuals want access to contraceptive coverage and the ability to make personal decisions on contraceptives, reports Catholics for Choice.  Ninety-eight percent of sexually active Catholic women have used birth control, and 63 percent of Catholic voters surveyed in 2009 supported health insurance coverage for contraception—whether it is private or government insurance.

 “The pressure being put on HHS is part of a larger pattern of religious organizations attempting to use claims of ‘religious freedom’ to exempt themselves from the laws of our society,” Silverman said. “Religiously affiliated businesses that receive government funds must abide by civil rights statutes, which include comprehensive health insurance coverage. Nobody is being forced to accept any services that go against their beliefs and it is up to the Church—not the government—to convince its members to avoid contraceptives.”

According to the HHS, scientists have abundant evidence that birth control has significant health benefits for women and their families, is documented to significantly reduce health costs, and is the most commonly taken drug in America by young and middle-age women. Religiously affiliated businesses would also be required to cover life-saving procedures, such as the termination of an ectopic pregnancy—which can be fatal to the woman without intervention.

The Secular Coalition for America, along with other supportive organizations, submitted comments about the regulation in September 2011, and supported the narrow religious exemption. 

The Secular Coalition urges HHS not to back down from this new rule—and for U.S. Representatives to recognize that religious freedom does not include pushing an organization’s beliefs on others, but providing individuals with the ability to make choices for themselves.

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