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A coalition of 149 mostly Protestant religious leaders, have signed a letter objecting to the Obama Administration's health insurance mandate which obliges religious organizations to put their employees in health insurance schemes that cover abortifacients, sterilisations and artificial contraception
In a letter sent last week to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the 149 religious leaders said that they hold differing views on “the moral acceptability” of contraception and on the viability of various administration proposals to allow faith-based groups to bypass the mandate for contraception and sterilisation coverage.
But they said they all strongly objected to defining which religious groups are eligible for an exemption.
They said that the mandate's definition created a “two-class system” of religious groups: churches, which qualify under the wording of the exemption, and “faith-based service organisations,” such as hospitals, school or universities, which may or may not qualify.
In a letter written under the aegis of the International Religious Freedom Alliance, the signatories state:
“It is this two-class system that the administration has embedded in federal law via the February 15, 2012, publication of the final rules providing for an exemption from the mandate for a narrowly defined set of “religious employers” and the related administration publications and statements about a different “accommodation” for non-exempt religious organisations.
“And yet both worship-oriented and service-oriented religious organisations are authentically and equally religious organisations. To use Christian terms, we owe God wholehearted and pure worship, to be sure, and yet we know also that “pure religion” is “to look after orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27).
“We deny that it is within the jurisdiction of the federal government to define, in place of religious communities, what constitutes true religion and authentic ministry.”
Diverse critics of the mandate have found a common rallying point in opposition to the exemption definition.
The regulation currently states that to qualify as exempt, an organisation must be dedicated to promoting its religious values, must primarily employ and serve people who share the group’s beliefs, and must be a nonprofit.
The administration says the regulation would go beyond houses of worship to cover most religious groups, except for universities and hospitals. Officials also say the federal regulation, which is based on a definition used in contraception mandates in some states, would not be applicable in anything beyond the birth control policy.
But religious groups remain wary, at best, of such promises, and are pressing the White House to broaden the exemption or drop the mandate altogether.
The letter to Sebelius was organised by Stanley Carlson-Thies, an architect of President George W. Bush's faith-based office, and includes Ronald J. Sider, head of Evangelicals for Social Action; Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary; Samuel Rodriguez, head of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference; Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; and David Neff, editor-in- chief of Christianity Today.
A dozen Catholic groups and individuals signed the letter but no Catholic bishops joined in. The bishops have been at the forefront of efforts to alter or overturn the contraception mandate, and are pursuing their own high-profile course of legal action and political lobbying. The Catholic hierarchy has also made it clear that it has problems with the mandate that go well beyond the exemption.
The bishops are meeting in Atlanta this week to discuss their strategy against the mandate, which they are framing as a campaign for religious freedom.