Obama uses insurance companies to impose church-state mandate

Neil Munro | White House Correspondent

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.

Obama’s proposed rules would also cover large churches, which operate ancillary services, such as day care centers, job training activities and food banks, from building attached to churches.

However, the establishment of the federal power over religious organizations and their congregations would allow federal officials to offer or withhold religious status to favored or disfavored church-run non-profits. The power to offer, and the power to withdraw, benefits would enhance state power over churches, and spur continued church–state controversy and regulation of churches by progressives.

“Religious freedom is not a political football to be kicked around in an election year,” Smith said. “Rather than providing full protection for the right of conscience, the administration has made a cynical political play that is the antithesis of ‘hope and change.’”

The Obama administration has already lost a similar controversy this year. In 2011, Obama’s Equal Opportunity Employment Commission tried to extend routine employment regulations to churches, but were rebuffed by a unanimous Supreme Court decision in January.

Since Obama’s Jan. 20 announcement of the mandate on religious groups, numerous Democratic and Republican legislators have protested Obama’s directive.

In a tacit recognition of the threat posed to his election, Obama’s statement Friday said some opposition is prompted by sincere disagreements, while other “cynical” opponents are using the dispute as a “political football.”

“I understand that some folks in Washington want to treat this as another political wedge issue, but they shouldn’t,” he said. “I’ve never seen it that way.”

Obama’s Jan. 20 decision came after extensive months of intensive negotiations in the White House, which included closed-door meetings with Planned Parenthood.

Planned Parenthood is perhaps one of the most influential forces within the Democratic Party, partly because it is the de facto leader of the party’s professional-class feminist base.

Obama’s emphasis on Catholic opposition to the regulations complements his campaign-trail effort to spur turnout in November by unmarried women — many of whom rely on state aid — and to boost enthusiasm by progressives.

However, the Catholic Church is just one of many diverse religious and civil liberties groups — many of who do not object to contraceptive services or abortion-related drugs — that have opposed the federal mandate.

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