The Family Research Council (FRC) released Feb. 20 a letter signed by more than 2,500 Christians, including pastors, urging President Obama to reverse course. They called for him to revise the demand on employers in health insurance plans by providing sufficient protection for "the conscience rights of those who have biblically-based opposition to funding or providing contraceptives and abortifacients."
Speaking at a news conference at which the letter was released, Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land said, "This is about conscience, not contraception. And it's about religious freedom.
"The Obama administration is trying to run roughshod over the consciences" of Roman Catholics, evangelicals and others, said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
Southern Baptist leaders have joined the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, other Protestant bodies and some Jewish organizations in expressing opposition to the rule since the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced Jan. 20 that health plans must cover contraceptives and sterilizations as preventive services for employees.
The mandate requires coverage of contraceptives, as defined by the Food and Drug Administration, that can cause abortions, such as "ella;" emergency contraception, such as Plan B; and the intrauterine device (IUD). Those methods all have mechanisms that can prevent tiny embryos from implanting in the uterine wall. In the case of "ella," it also can block production of the hormone progesterone, destroying the placenta that provides nutrition to the embryo and causing the unborn child's death after implantation.
Opponents of the rule especially have protested its failure to provide an adequate religious or conscience exemption.
Like Land, FRC President Tony Perkins told reporters the issue is religious liberty.
"We will not tolerate any denomination having their religious freedom infringed upon by the government of the United States. If there ever was a separation of church and state violation, this is it," Perkins said, speaking to reporters at a Feb. 20 news conference held during the annual convention of the National Religious Broadcasters in Nashville.
The refusal to provide an adequate religious exemption for the "contraceptive mandate" demonstrates a trend of the Obama administration, Land said.
"This is part of an attempt to atrophy, to nullify, to confine and constrain, and to emasculate and neuter religious freedom down to freedom of worship," Land told reporters. "The president and his administration consistently talk about freedom of worship. ... Freedom of worship is confined to the space between your ears and the space between your shoulders at home and church or home and synagogue or home and temple or home and mosque.
"What our forefathers protected is freedom of conscience, freedom of religion. That is -- the freedom to propagate our faith, to take our faith outside the walls of our home, outside the walls of our church and to have Catholic and Baptist charities, and Catholic and Baptist hospitals, and Catholic and Baptist schools that seek to educate within a worldview that is Catholic or Baptist or Lutheran or whatever," he said. "And we are not going to sit by and allow our God-given rights -- which are acknowledged, recognized and protected by the Constitution -- to be atrophied and to be neutered and to be confined and restricted by the Obama administration."
The FRC-sponsored letter said, "The ability of a religious person to follow their conscience without fearing government intervention has long been a protected right for Americans. It is unfathomable to picture a country that would deny religious freedoms."
Public resistance -- especially by religious adherents -- is growing on various fronts:
-- Louisiana College, which is affiliated with the Louisiana Baptist Convention, filed a federal lawsuit Feb. 18 challenging the mandate. Geneva College, a Reformed Presbyterian Church school in western Pennsylvania, is expected to file a suit Feb. 21. The Alliance Defense Fund is representing both schools. Two other schools -- Belmont Abbey College, a Roman Catholic school in North Carolina, and Colorado Christian University, a non-denominational school -- previously have sued the administration.
-- All 181 bishops who lead Roman Catholic dioceses in the United States have voiced public opposition to the mandate, Thomas Peters reported Feb. 18 at the American Papist blog.
The HHS rule includes an exception for employers who oppose paying for such coverage on religious grounds, but it is narrowly drawn. It will protect many churches and other houses of worship, but it apparently will not cover churches that primarily serve people outside their faith. The exemption also will not extend to such faith-based organizations as schools, hospitals and social service programs.
Obama announced a change Feb. 10 in response to widespread protests, saying religious organizations would not have to pay for or provide contraceptives if they object on religious grounds. Instead, he said, their insurance companies would be required to pay for such services.
Southern Baptist leaders and other opponents said Obama's solution did not address the religious liberty and conscience problems. Some described it as an "accounting gimmick" that would still require religious organizations to be complicit in paying for employees' abortion-causing contraceptives through their insurance companies.
To add to opponents' dissatisfaction with the president's revision, HHS did not actually change the rule to reflect Obama's announced language. The Heritage Foundation reported the final regulation published Feb. 15 in the Federal Register did not include the language described by Obama.
The FRC-sponsored letter may be accessed online at http://www.frc.org/get.cfm?i=PT12B02&f=AL12B04 . It also can be signed at that link.
With reporting by Elizabeth Wood, communications specialist for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
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