Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Which Religious Employers' Rights Will Be Respected?

Stanley Carlson-Thies


August 19, 2011
by Stanley Carlson-Thies

This article originally appeared in the August 9 edition of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance eNewsletter entitled “Federal Government Proposes Feeble Religious Exemption.”

Earlier this month, the Obama administration announced new regulations requiring health insurance plans to cover a suite of preventive care services for women, including birth control, with no co-pay, exempting certain religious employers from these requirements.  Faith-based organizations, whatever their views on offering health insurance that pays for contraceptive services, should be deeply concerned about this religious employer exemption. The Obama administration claimed to be protecting religious freedom by creating an exemption for religious employers to the required coverage of certain services that Catholics and others find morally objectionable.  But the administration's concept of a "religious employer" is entirely inadequate.

When the government mandates something that persons and organizations regard as deeply objectionable on religious or conscience grounds, the government ought to, if possible, exempt those persons and organizations from having to obey the mandate.  So it is right for the Obama administration to write into the health insurance regulations an exemption for religious employers. 

But who is a religious employer—an organization that need not cover the disputed services in its insurance plan?  According to the administration, to be counted as an exempt employer, the organization must (1) have "the inculcation of religious values as its purpose"; (2) employ primarily "persons who share its religious tenets"; (3) serve primarily "persons who share its religious tenets": and (4) be a nonprofit organization that is regarded by the Internal Revenue Service to be a church, seminary, or other church-like entity. 

In short, the administration has decided to protect churches, but not parachurch organizations; to protect the Catholic Church itself but not Catholic Charities.

Recall: the question is which kind of organization will the government consider to be free to follow its own conscience in offering health insurance?

And here is what the federal government has decided: a faith-based organization that serves people of every (and no) faith, which tends to their physical or mental needs rather than just preaching at them, is not a "religious employer."  Such an organization will not be allowed by the government to follow its religious convictions about employee health benefits.  

And yet most religious charities regard it to be a religious duty to serve everyone who needs their help, without restricting the help only to people of their own religion.  And religious charities would regard it to be a violation of a divine command simply to preach at someone who needs material help.  

So the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, World Vision, and innumerable other religious charities—because they do not confine their help to people of their own faith and limit their services to praying for the needy—are no longer regarded by the federal government as "religious employers," employers with religious convictions that the government must respect.  

The administration justifies its narrow exemption by the fact that many states have the identical narrow exemption in their own laws about contraceptive coverage.  But the mistake these states have made does not justify the federal government putting into federal law an unacceptable religious exemption.

Religion is not a matter only of worship and religious instruction; it is also a matter of serving others when they have physical or psychological needs.  Religious freedom must protect parachurch organizations as well as churches, for it is through parachurch organizations such as religious charities, schools, and hospitals that people of faith put their convictions into action out in the world.

By the way: any faith-based organization that serves only needy people of its own faith would, for that precise reason, be ineligible for government funding.  So, under the new rules, the organization can either protect its religious practices by serving only its co-religionists, using only private funds; or it can partner with the government and serve a broader range of people—but only at the expense of losing its freedom to maintain its internal standards.  Such an either-or is a betrayal of the faith-based initiative.

—Stanley Carlson-Thies is president and founder of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance. He served on the church-state task force of President Obama's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and on the founding staff of President George W. Bush's White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.



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