Catholics for Choice president Jon O’Brien harshly criticized today’s proposed rule from the Department of Health and Human Services, which would broaden the definition of religious employers entitled to an exemption from providing contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Calling the proposed rule “appalling,” O’Brien said that providing such exemptions gives “carte blanche” to “religious extremists” to “trump the rights of others. . . even if those beliefs are contrary to science and even the beliefs of their co-religionists.”
According to O’Brien and Catholics for Choice’s Domestic Program Director, Sara Hutchinson, the new definition of religious employer expands exempt employers from just houses of worship to organizations that are operated or financed by houses of worship, including Catholic parishes or dioceses. As a result, said Hutchinson, many Catholic elementary, middle, and high schools, in addition to some Catholic charities and social service organizations, would be exempt from providing the coverage.
Under the previous iteration of the rule, to qualify for the exemption, an organization would have to show that “inculcation of religious values” was its purpose; that it employed primarily people who share its religious beliefs; and that it primarily serves people who share its religious beliefs. By eliminating those three elements of the test for exemption, exempt organizations can now include schools and social service organizations, operated by churches, that nonetheless employ and serve people of other faiths.
Organizations that do not qualify for the exemption will likely include institutions of higher education, large social services organizations, and Catholic hospitals, said Hutchinson. The new proposed rule permits these organizations, she said, to self-certify that they are entitled to the work-around, or accommodation, that places the onus of providing and paying for the contraception coverage on the insurance company.
Hutchinson said she was “dubious, maybe cynical, about how easy and how smooth the process of making sure the folks who do need, the employees who are under accommodated employers will actually work.”
O’Brien said it was “good news” that women would get the coverage they need under the accommodation — if it works as HHS has laid it out. “Let’s say,” said O’Brien, “you are in a university and there is a workaround — it’s good that you get coverage if it all works out. The devil is in the details. But the fact that you [the Obama administration] have given that concession to the business of higher education and the business of Catholic health care, that doesn’t bode well for the future.”