In an open letter to Americans released Tuesday (July 2), the collection of about 100 religious, pro-family and religious freedom leaders urged the administration to extend the conscience protections to include individuals and organizations with objections to the mandate. The mandate, which is a part of regulations implementing the 2010 health care reform law, requires nearly all employers to carry insurance plans that cover drugs defined by the federal government as contraceptives, even if they can cause chemical abortions.
The coalition said the "specific offense" of the mandate embodies a "greater fundamental breach of conscience" by the government. "Very simply, is forcing Citizen A, against his or her moral convictions, to purchase a product for Citizen B," according to the letter.
The mandate "is coercive and puts the administration in the position of defining -- or casting aside -- religious doctrine," the coalition said in its letter. "This should trouble every American."
The letter represented another act in the ongoing protests against the abortion/contraception mandate since it was first announced in August 2011. The coalition not only urged the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to strengthen conscience rights in the mandate, but it called on Congress to find a way to bar such future offenses.
Speaking at a July 2 news conference upon release of the letter, the leading religious freedom spokesmen for Southern Baptists and American Roman Catholics -- Russell D. Moore and William Lori, respectively -- reaffirmed their agreement on the religious liberty issue at the core of the mandate and their support for freedom of conscience for all people.
"The issue here is not contraception or abortion," said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). "We wouldn't all agree on those questions ourselves in this coalition. At issue is the callous disregard our government has shown for the freedom of Americans to exercise their religious convictions."
Lori, archbishop of Baltimore and chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' ad hoc committee for religious liberty, told reporters, "Our concern for our institutions is a concern to serve, to be able to do our ministries of justice and charity and education and health care ... according to our own teaching. But our concern is also broader than even that. It extends to conscientious private individuals, because religious freedom inheres first and foremost in the individual."
While the USCCB opposes coverage of all contraceptives, the ERLC's objection is to contraceptives that can cause abortions.
The latest letter came less than two weeks after Moore and Lori jointly wrote all members of the Senate and House of Representatives to urge them to pass legislation -- the Health Care Conscience Rights Act, H.R. 940 in the House and S. 1204 in the Senate -- to bolster conscience protections in health care generally.
The administration has greeted their appeals for conscience protections in the mandate with "word games and accounting tricks that amount to the same mandate repeated over and over and over again," Moore said at the news conference. "But we are not so easily hypnotized by bureaucratic parlor tricks. Our government has treated the free exercise of religion in this case as if it were a tattered house standing in the way of a government construction of a railroad, there to be bought off or plowed out of the way in the name of progress."
Moore told reporters, "We are not going to back down on this question. I think the government has been waiting us out for some time, thinking that Roman Catholics and evangelicals and others who are opposed to these things will somehow go away. We're not going away."
Among the government-defined contraceptives covered by the mandate are Plan B and other "morning-after" pills, which can prevent implantation of tiny embryos, and "ella," which -- in a manner similar to the abortion rug RU 486 -- can act even after implantation to end the life of a child.
HHS issued the final regulations on the mandate June 28, but those rules did nothing to accommodate conscience objections by for-profit companies. While they extended the mandate's implementation date for Christian institutions and other non-profits from Aug. 1 to Jan. 1, 2014, they failed to free them from complicity in abortion, critics said.
The administration announced Tuesday (July 2) it would delay enforcement of another mandate in the health care law for a year. The government has postponed from 2014 to 2015 the mandate that requires employers with at least 50 workers to provide health insurance.
In addition to Moore and Lori, others signing the July 2 letter included Leith Anderson, president, National Association of Evangelicals; Samuel Rodriguez, president, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference; Matthew Harrison, president, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod; Alan Sears, president, Alliance Defending Freedom; Tony Perkins, president, Family Research Council; David Nammo, executive director, Christian Legal Society; and Richard Land, president, Southern Evangelical Seminary, and the ERLC's president emeritus.
The letter's other signers included representatives of various non-Catholic denominations and churches, Catholic institutions, Mormons, Scientologists and Hare Krishnas.
More than 60 lawsuits have been filed against the abortion/contraception mandate, including 32 by for-profit companies, including Christian publisher Tyndale House and retail chain Hobby Lobby. Courts have granted injunctions or restraining orders blocking enforcement of the mandate to 22 for-profit corporations but have refused to provide such relief to six others, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. No action has been taken in four for-profit lawsuits.
The ERLC, which has signed onto five briefs challenging the mandate, has said the abortion/contraception mandate gives those who object to it three options, all unacceptable: (1) Violate their consciences by obeying it; (2) violate the law, which could produce hefty fines; or (3) stop providing health coverage, which could force workers to purchase insurance with provisions they object to and possibly open the employers up to penalties.
The coalition letter, titled "Standing Together for Religious Freedom," may be accessed online at http://erlc.com/article/open-letter-religious-freedom.
Moore's written statement for the news conference in Washington is available at http://erlc.com/article/remarks-national-press-club.
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for 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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