WASHINGTON — The Trump administration Oct. 6 issued interim rules expanding the exemption to the contraceptive mandate for religious employers, such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, who object on moral grounds to covering contraceptive and abortion-inducing drugs and devices in their employee health insurance.
Leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops praised the action as "a return to common-sense, long-standing federal practice and peaceful coexistence between church and state."
The contraceptive mandate was put in place by the Department of Health and Human Services under the Affordable Care Act.
While providing an exemption for religious employers, the new rules maintain the existing federal contraceptive mandate for most employers.
President Donald Trump had pledged to lift the mandate burden placed on religious employers during a White House signing ceremony May 4 for an executive order promoting free speech and religious liberty, but Catholic leaders and the heads of a number of Catholic entities had criticized the administration for a lack of action on that pledge in the months that followed.
From the outset, churches were exempt from the mandate, but not religious employers. The Obama administration had put in place a religious accommodation for nonprofit religious entities such as church-run colleges and social service agencies morally opposed to contraceptive coverage that required them to file a form or notify HHS that they will not provide it. Many Catholic employers still objected to having to fill out the form.
The HHS mandate has undergone numerous legal challenges from religious organizations, including the Little Sisters of the Poor and Priests for Life.
Senior Health and Human Services officials who spoke to reporters Oct. 5 on the HHS rule on the condition of anonymity said that the exemption to the contraceptive mandate would apply to all the groups that had sued
An Oct. 6 statement by Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, USCCB president, and Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the USCCB's Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, stated the new rule "corrects an anomalous failure by federal regulators that should never have occurred and should never be repeated."
Cardinal DiNardo and Bishop Lori stated the decision was "good news for all Americans," noting that a "government mandate that coerces people to make an impossible choice between obeying their consciences and obeying the call to serve the poor is harmful not only to Catholics but to the common good."
Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at the Becket Fund, told reporters that it is a "common sense and balanced rule and a great step forward for religious liberty."
He said the rule "carves out a narrow exemption" and keeps the contraceptive mandate in place for those without moral or religious objections to it.
Rienzi noted that the HHS rule could have eliminated the contraceptive mandate completely but didn't do so. He said the new rule is open for comments for a 90-day period and will likely face legal challenges, which began in a lawsuit filed Oct. 6 by the American Civil Liberties Union. In the lawsuit, the ACLU said the interim rules violate the establishment clause regarding religion in the First Amendment and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment in the Constitution "by authorizing and promoting religiously motivated and other discrimination against women seeking reproductive health care." RELATED ARTICLE(S):