Led by Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, the attorneys general released a strongly worded letter Friday (Feb. 10), calling the mandate an "impermissible violation of the Constitution's First Amendment." After President Obama announced a supposed compromise that same day, Bruning released a statement calling it an "accounting gimmick."
"The administration's new proposal still tramples on religious freedom by requiring support of activity that violates the conscience and beliefs of millions of Americans," Bruning said in a statement.
Under the mandate, employees of religious institutions -- such as Christian colleges, hospitals and other ministries -- will be offered free contraceptives and abortion-inducing pills as part of their employee-subsidized insurance plans. Under his announced compromise, Obama said the insurance companies will be the ones required to pay for and offer the free drugs, but pro-lifers say it's a distinction without a difference and that the employers are the ones paying for it.
Among the covered drugs are "emergency" contraceptives such as Plan B and "ella" that can block implantation and kill the embryo -- an action that pro-life groups and many Christians view as an early chemical abortion.
The mandate is part of the national health care law.
"We strongly oppose the unconstitutional approach taken by the proposed contraceptive coverage mandate," the letter signed by Bruning and 11 other attorneys general said. "We believe it represents an impermissible violation of the Constitution's First Amendment virtually unparalleled in American history."
The letter -- sent to the secretaries of the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and Treasury -- stated plainly, "Should this unconstitutional mandate be promulgated, we are prepared to vigorously oppose it in court."
The mandate, the attorneys general asserted, will force employers to "subsidize contraceptive products and services which clearly violate their religious beliefs." It also could lead to employees losing insurance altogether, they said.
"The only viable alternative for these employers is to penalize their employees by ceasing the provision of health insurance altogether," the attorneys general said. "The choice for such organizations essentially becomes: provide and subsidize activity in contravention with core religious beliefs, eliminate employer-provided health coverage, or withdraw from public ministry."
In addition to Bruning, also signing the letter were the attorneys general of Texas, South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Maine, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Colorado. Meanwhile, Michigan's attorney general, Bill Schuette, says he is filing a brief in support of a lawsuit by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty against the mandate, the Detroit Free Press reported.
The contraceptive rule covers all insurance companies, and it does include a religious exemption. But that exemption is far too narrow, the 12 attorneys general said in their letter.
"The proposed mandate provides an insufficiently narrow exemption which would fail to include religious affiliated organizations who do not 'primarily employ persons who share their religious tenets' and do not have 'the inculcation of religious values' as their primary operational purpose," the attorneys general said. "Such an exemption ignores the fact that many such organizations only exist and provide public ministry pursuant to a duty and sense of purpose derived from their religious beliefs."
The controversy has led many religious leaders to state simply that they won't be able to follow the law. Among those who would be impacted are Southern Baptist colleges and seminaries, and Catholic Charities. Even before Obama's announced "compromise," O.S. Hawkins, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's GuideStone Financial Resources, released a statement saying, "We will not provide abortive contraceptives." GuideStone is a Southern Baptist entity that provides health insurance coverage to 60,000 people, including pastors and missionaries.
"The president's statement," said Hawkins, "... is an insulting affront illustrating a basic lack of understanding that this issue will not be solved by sleight-of-hand word games. It is a fundamental matter of religious liberty that threatens the very coverage of those dedicated persons who serve our churches and affiliated organizations. GuideStone will never depart from the core convictions it has held dear for decades regarding the sanctity of life."
Obama's statement did "take into account the needs of many of the oldest and largest church plans in the nation," GuideStone said.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, was even more direct.
"How stupid does he think we are?" Land asked of the president.
"It is an attempt to deal with a matter of religious conviction with an accounting gimmick," Land said.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops -- a leading voice in pressuring the White House -- also said the compromise fell short, and called for a complete rescinding of the mandate.
"In the case where the employee and insurer agree to add the objectionable coverage, that coverage is still provided as a part of the objecting employer's plan, financed in the same way as the rest of the coverage offered by the objecting employer," the bishops said in a statement.
Further, the bishops argued that all other "preventive services" under Obama's health care law prevent diseases.
"And pregnancy is not a disease," the bishops said.
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).
Copyright (c) 2012 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press www.BPNews.net