The rule by the Department of Health and Human Services would require all private insurance plans to cover all FDA-approved contraceptives, including ones such as Plan B and "ella" that can work after implantation and kill the embryo -- an action that pro-life groups and many Christians view as an early abortion. The HHS rule includes an exemption for most churches, but that exemption does not cover Christian colleges and schools or faith-based hospitals and social service programs. The lack of a broader exemption means that faith-based groups that pay for employees' insurance plans will be purchasing something to which they are morally opposed. Even the exemption for churches is narrow, and would not cover a church that makes outreach to the poor a major part of its ministry.
The issue is being portrayed in the media as a Catholic-only issue but has ballooned into much more than that, and now has evangelical leaders involved. And with abortion-inducing drugs in the mix, it's also more than a spat about contraceptives.
HHS has given religious organizations until August 2013 to comply. Religious leaders, though, say the problem isn't timing, but compliance, and they are demanding that all religious organizations be exempt.
"I'd go to jail rather than cave in to a government mandate that violates what God commands us to do. Would you? Acts 5:29," author and pastor Rick Warren wrote on his Twitter account Feb. 7 before adding, "I'm not a Catholic but I stand in 100% solidarity with my brothers & sisters to practice their belief against govt pressure."
The controversy is perhaps the biggest divide yet between the Obama administration and religious groups, and even some leading Democrats have criticized the administration's move. It's one of the rare moments when evangelicals and Catholics across the ideological spectrum -- liberal and conservative -- have united against the administration. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr., a Catholic who is liberal on many issues, said Obama had "utterly botched" the issue and had thrown "his progressive Catholic allies under the bus." Another Catholic, Vice President Joe Biden, reportedly argued for a broader religious exemption, but lost.
Southern Baptist leaders, including Richard Land, Barrett Duke, R. Albert Mohler Jr. and O.S. Hawkins, have spoken out, calling the rule a direct threat to religious liberty.
Republican leaders have threatened to take legislative action. Speaker of the House John Boehner took to the floor for a rare speech Wednesday (Feb. 8), calling the HHS rule an "unambiguous attack on religious freedom in our country."
"In imposing this requirement, the federal government has drifted dangerously beyond its constitutional boundaries, encroaching on religious freedom in a manner that affects millions of Americans and harms some of our nation's most vital institutions," Boehner said. "If the president does not reverse the department's attack on religious freedom, then the Congress, acting on behalf of the American people and the Constitution that we're sworn to uphold and defend, must."
Catholic groups across the country are saying they won't comply and would rather pay fines. The Baltimore Sun said Cardinal-designate Edwin F. O'Brien had written a letter stating plainly, "We cannot -- we will not -- comply with this unjust law."
"The Administration has cast aside the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, denying to Catholics our nation's first and most fundamental freedom, that of religious liberty," O'Brien wrote.
The HHS exemption would not cover Catholic Charities. Nor would it cover Prison Fellowship, the Christian ministry founded by Chuck Colson which has 180 employees.
"For some institutions, it would spell the end of their existence -- and their far-reaching service to the public and the needy," Colson and Beeson Divinity School dean Timothy George wrote in a Christianity Today column. "... We do not exaggerate when we say that this is the greatest threat to religious freedom in our lifetime."
In their "open letter to evangelical Christians, "Colson and George quoted the famous words of German pastor Martin Niemoeller, who once said, reflecting on Nazi rule, "First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out -- because I was not a Socialist; then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out -- because I was not a Trade Unionist; then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out -- because I was not a Jew; then they came for me -- and there was no one left to speak for me."
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and Barrett Duke, ERLC vice president for public policy and research, co-wrote a Baptist Press column saying the HHS rule must be reversed. (The entire column can be read at http://www.bpnews.net/BPnews.asp?ID=37127)
"The Obama administration has declared war on religion and freedom of conscience," Land and Duke wrote. "This must not stand. Our Baptist forebears died and went to prison to secure these freedoms. It is now our calling to stand in the gap and defend our priceless First Amendment religious freedoms."
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty -- a legal group -- has filed or is filing a series of lawsuits seeking to reverse the rule. In the three suits, Becket is representing the Eternal Word Television Network, Belmont Abbey College and Colorado Christian University.
The Family Research Council is hosting a webcast at 8 p.m. Eastern Thursday (Feb. 9) spotlighting the HHS mandate. Land, FRC President Tony Perkins and Sen. Orrin Hatch are among the scheduled speakers. It can be viewed online at http://www.frcaction.org/mandate.
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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