- - Sunday, December 8, 2013

If there’s one thing that Americans and special-interest groups can agree on these days, it’s that they want to be exempted in some capacity from Obamacare. Barely a day after its passage, individuals, businesses and other groups began to line up in the hopes of being waived from Obamacare’s mandates. One by one, the Obama administration has exempted countless businesses, unions and now even health care plans the law deems noncompliant with its new standards. With 54 percent of likely voters disapproving of the law, it is no wonder the exemption line is so long.

There is one group that can’t get a break though: religious groups and nonprofits who continue to wait in line for an exemption from the Health and Human Services mandate.

These groups hope that given the Supreme Court has agreed to hear Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius, two cases challenging the Obamacare mandate on religious-liberty grounds, their long wait may be over.

A new poll conducted by the Family Research Council and Alliance Defending Freedom finds that 59 percent of likely voters, and 61 percent of independents, oppose the contraception mandate, which requires that private individual and group health care plans cover all Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptives and sterilization services, without any co-pay, by 2014. These include drugs such as Ella and the morning-after pill, both of which can destroy a human embryo. If an employer refuses to comply owing to moral or religious reasons, he could be punished with crippling fines of up to $100 per day per employee. A just-conducted Rasmussen poll found opposition to the mandate at 51 percent with 38 percent supporting it — and that’s only when the question is limited to contraception, omitting specific references to drugs that can destroy a human embryo. Either way, a solid majority of likely voters oppose this mandate.

The exemption that covers individuals and businesses who object to paying for contraceptive drugs and services is woefully narrow. Just ask Hobby Lobby, Conestoga Wood, Eden Foods, Autocam, Little Sisters of the Poor, Wheaton College and Notre Dame University. All of the organizations have filed lawsuits against the administration, petitioning they be released from the predicament of having to violate their conscience by paying for drugs and services to which they object or be fined for not complying, or dropping coverage altogether and pay the lower employer-mandate fine.

The narrow religious exemption in the mandate only applies to churches and religious associations. Other religious institutions, such as religious charities and nonprofits, health care providers and colleges are not exempt. Businesses and for-profit institutions that operate from a faith perspective are also not exempt.

The freedom to practice religion without government interference is protected by the Constitution and should extend to an employer’s ability to offer their employees a health care plan consistent with their religious beliefs. Violating one’s conscience should not be a prerequisite for purchasing a health care plan in this country, something which is now mandated by the federal government. Giving religious organizations two choices — comply or be fined — is no choice.

The administration claimed it would ameliorate the dilemma posed to people of conscience by issuing an “accommodation” so they wouldn’t have to pay directly for such coverage in their insurance plans. It was really nothing more than an accounting scheme, since the insurance companies will still have to pay for and provide “free” contraception and sterilization. The logical question that results is: When was the last time a company swallowed a new expense without shifting the cost on to their customers in the form of higher prices?

Insurance companies are not going to swallow the cost of providing “free” drugs and services to every enrollee without passing this along to customers in the form of higher premiums, which even the Department of Health and Human Services estimates could increase premiums by a half-percent.

The accommodation also doesn’t change the fact that religious employers will still remain the legal gateway for their employees to obtain contraceptive drugs and sterilization services to which they object. So, while on paper, employers might not directly pay for these products, they still facilitate paying this transaction to the insurance company.

It should not matter what the government is forcing individuals to purchase: If someone objects on conscience grounds to a mandated purchase, that person’s rights should be respected. If someone objects to purchasing or facilitating the purchase of a health care plan that includes coverage for contraception drugs and sterilizations, their rights should be respected.

Freedom of religion extends to one’s health care plan, and is something we hope the Supreme Court will recognize this spring when it hears two cases challenging the Health and Human Services mandate on religious-liberty grounds brought by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood. Congress should also act to protect religious freedom and conscience by passing the Health Care Conscience Rights Act.

Until the Supreme Court or Congress acts to protect religious organizations and nonprofits, they will continue to languish in the Obamacare exemption line.

Emily Minick is a senior legislative assistant at the Family Research Council.

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