Editorial: HHS fight continues

If the Obama administration made anything clear with its most recent religious employer “accommodation” to the contraception mandate, it’s that the fight for religious liberty in the United States is far from over.

In its eighth rule revision, the Department of Health and Human Services, rather than backing down in the wake of recent court decisions protecting religious liberty, has decided to stay the course, only slightly revising its previous offering. While legal teams examine the fine print, the U.S. bishops and others initially have expressed disappointment and dissatisfaction with the revised rule. Our Sunday Visitor, which is one of more than 100 Catholic entities filing suit against the government over the mandate, agrees with this initial assessment.

“On initial review of the government’s summary of the regulations, we note with disappointment that the regulations would not broaden the ‘religious employer’ exemption to encompass all employers with sincerely held religious objections to the mandate,” Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement. “Instead, the regulations would only modify the ‘accommodation,’ under which the mandate still applies and still requires provision of the objectionable coverage.”

In predictable work-around fashion, the government is continuing to attack religious liberty from multiple angles, including a nonsensical proposal to extend the “accommodation” outlined for religious employers to already exempted (thanks to Hobby Lobby) closely held for-profit employers, as well.

As Archbishop Kurtz said, “The proposed regulations would effectively reduce, rather than expand, the scope of religious freedom.”

But it’s not stopping there. In July, Senate Bill 2578, or the “Protect Women’s Health from Corporate Interference Act,” was introduced as a way to reverse the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision.

But as Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, pointed out in a recent editorial, the bill is much more sweeping.

“It states that when the federal government, by law or regulation, decides to mandate any item in health plans nationwide, no one will have a right to object that it violates their religious freedom,” Bishop Rhoades wrote in Fort Wayne’s Journal Gazette.

“The government’s mandate will override ‘any other provision of federal law’ that stands in the way — whether that law protects for-profit employers, nonprofit charitable organizations like the Little Sisters of the Poor, religious educational institutions like the University of Notre Dame, insurers, employees or individual women purchasing a health plan for their families on our state health exchange,” he added.

The ramifications of this bill — which failed its cloture vote in mid-July by a narrow margin but could come up for debate again anytime after September — would be disastrous for the Church and for all who find freedom of religion to be an inalienable right.

Even as America becomes increasingly secular, Catholics must display an ever more vigorous sensitivity to encroachments on religious freedom. We must remain vigilant in the face of an increasing willingness on the part of our own governments — both at the federal and the state level — to hinder freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor