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Religious Freedom and the Affordable Care Act


In August of 2011, the Obama administration announced an interim rule that requires all new private insurance plans to cover “several evidence based preventive services without  charging a copayment, deductible, or coinsurance.” Included in the definition of preventive services are “FDA approved contraception methods,” (including those which some consider to be abortifacients), and surgical sterilization. These medications and procedures go against the teachings of the Catholic Church.

The rule, as it stood, exempted some religious organizations, like churches, from being forced to provide this coverage, while other organizations, like hospitals and universities sponsored by religious organizations, would not be exempt and would have to offer it to employees. In late January, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) finalized the rule, giving non-exempt religious organizations a year to comply with the new regulation.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius believed that the finalized rules struck the “appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services.” Many disagreed, arguing that the rule forced Catholic universities and hospitals to violate their religious beliefs and therefore violated the First Amendment’s protection of free religious exercise. While much of the opposition came from Catholics, other groups also objected on the basis of religious freedom. Charles Colson, the head of Prison Fellowship and Joseph B. Soloveitchik of the Orthodox Union co-wrote an open letter with Archbishop Timothy Dolan that was published in the Wall Street Journal, charging that the regulations violate religious freedom.

After a flurry of controversy surrounding the rule, the Obama administration announced a compromise on February 10. Insurance companies, rather than the employers themselves, would be the ones to pay for the contraceptive methods. Reaction to the compromise has been mixed. The top U.S. Catholic Bishop, Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, vows legislative and court challenges to the compromise. But the Catholic Health Association is “very pleased” with the compromise. What do you think? Does the HHS rule on contraception violate the First Amendment?


Bill of Rights Institute Resources

U.S. Bill of Rights

News Resources :

Contraception Rule Fiercely Debated Within White House – – ABCNEWS

Under Fire, Obama Adjusts His Birth Control Policy – – Yahoo News

Mixed Catholic reaction to revised White House contraception plan – – CNN

Questions to Consider :

1. What does the HHS new rule require?

2. Why did some charge that the rule violates the First Amendment’s free exercise clause?

3. How did the Obama Administration react to the controversy over the rule?

4. Do you think the compromise resolves any First Amendment concerns associated with the rule? Why or why not?

Extension :

Read each of the following scenarios. Would the following rules be consistent with the First Amendment? Why or why not? What other similar scenarios can you think of?

  • Food banks run by Muslim charities are required by the government to provide pork-based meals.
  • Meals on Wheels programs run by a Jewish charity are required by government to provide meals prepared in ways that go against Kosher rules.
  • Government forcing all churches, synagogues, and mosques to perform and recognize same sex marriages.
  • Hospitals run by the Church of Scientology being required to provide psychiatric drugs to patients.