Obama uses insurance companies to impose church-state mandate

President Barack Obama says he will bypass religious groups’ opposition to a health insurance mandate by directing insurance companies to hand out free birth control services to employees of religious institutions.

“Religious organizations won’t have to pay for these services and no religious institution will have to provide these services directly … but women who work at these institutions will have access to free contraceptive services, just like other women,” Obama said in a brief Friday statement at the White House.

After his statement, Obama walked out of the press room without taking any questions from reporters.

Obama’s maneuver, however, preserves the federal intrusion into religious groups’ operations, and will likely be widely panned by civil liberties advocates.

Already, many religious groups, including evangelical and Catholic groups, say they will resist the federal mandate because it is an imposition by progressives of state power on churches’ activities.

Obama recognized this church–state argument Friday, saying that his transfer of the mandate from churches to insurance companies will preserve religious liberty.

Along with free contraceptive services for women, “there’s another principle at stake here, the principle of religious liberty,” he said. “As a Christian, I cherish this rule,” he said, citing his work with churches in Chicago. (RELATED: Full coverage of the health care reform law)

“Religious liberty will be protected,” he said, while health insurance companies “will not discriminate against women.”

Obama’s statement placed religious liberty on the same constitutional level as access to free contraceptives, and failed to satisfy civil liberties groups.

“The White House merely wants the religious institutions to pretend with them they are not funding this coverage, when the reality is they will be,” said a statement from Americans for Limited Government. “This is unconscionable… the President is attempting to get religious institutions to be complicit in this lie, forcing his rule and will upon them.”

Under the proposed rules, federal officials would decide which religious non-profits — such as church-run hospitals and schools — are deemed religious enough for the officials to direct their health insurance companies to provide free contraception and abortion-related drugs to their employees. Religious groups not deemed religious would be treated like commercial employers.

“This is a false ‘compromise’ designed to protect the president’s re-election chances, not to protect the right of conscience,” according to Hannah Smith, an attorney at a civil liberties advocacy group, the Becket Fund. “Hundreds, if not thousands, of religious institutions are still left out in the cold and will be forced to violate their religious convictions,” she said.

The details of the new regulation will be delayed until after the election. Those details might show which religious groups will be treated by government as commercial employers, which will be told they have to buy health insurance services that violate their religious beliefs.

Federal decisions about religious groups’ religious status would often be complex and subject to political judgement. For example, many religious non-profits are staffed by employees of varied denominations and serve people without regard to their religious beliefs.

Also, many Christian denominations do not oppose contraception, and some do not oppose abortion. This diversity could require federal officials to treat religious groups differently according to the officials’ assessments of their religious beliefs.