Last week, the Obama administration refused to broaden exemptions to a rule that requires employers to provide health insurance for contraception. The rule ensures that millions of women will be able to afford commonly used birth control no matter where they work. The rule already provides exemptions to houses of worship, but religious lobbying groups sought to expand that to apply to hospitals, universities and other institutions that employ and serve people of many beliefs.
The Department of Health and Human Services recognized that the overwhelming majority of women of childbearing age use contraception at some point of their lives, which is why they proposed the rule in the first place. The ACLU and other champions for women’s health had sought to keep the exemptions as they were, only applying to those institutions that exist primarily to advance a particular faith and employ people of the same belief, like churches and synagogues. Some claimed that this didn’t go far enough to respect the beliefs of some faith-based employers. But as Deputy Legal Director Louise Melling explains in the Washington Post’s On Faith blog, the narrow exemption in the rule respects religious liberty, while preventing religiously-affiliated organizations from using religion as an excuse to discriminate and deny services to others. These organizations operate in the public sphere and should play by the rules.
Religious clergy remain free to espouse their beliefs, and individual women remain free to follow those beliefs or not, according to their conscience. A broader exemption would have served only to permit certain institutions – that don’t exist primarily to advance a faith and that serve and hire people of different faiths – to impose one set of beliefs and practices on others. We said no when inns and restaurants wanted an exemption from anti-discrimination laws because they opposed integration as a matter of faith. The administration was right to stand up for women’s health and to say no here as well.
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