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Ala. asks to join suit over ever-changing contraception mandatecomment (0)

March 29, 2012

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange says the Obama administration’s contraception coverage mandate violates federal law and would require state officials to regulate insurance in violation of Alabama law.

So March 22, Strange filed a motion to intervene in a federal lawsuit challenging the mandate.

The mandate requires employers and insurance companies to provide coverage for all Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptive methods and sterilization procedures. Among these is the “morning-after pill,” which pro-life advocates point out can cause an abortion as it can block implantation of the early embryo in the uterine wall.

The only religious exemption applies primarily to churches and other houses of worship. Religious nonprofits, schools, universities and other entities do not qualify for the exemption.

But the Obama administration has offered to expand the definition of faith-based groups that can be exempt and proposed that third-party companies administer coverage for self-insured faith-based groups at no cost. 

At its heart, the newest offering from the White House would allow religious groups — dioceses, denominations and others — to decide which affiliated institutions are “religious” and, therefore, exempt from the requirement that employers offer free contraception coverage as part of employee insurance plans.

President Barack Obama has been sharply criticized by faith groups for not providing a sufficiently broad exemption for religious groups. On Feb. 10, he outlined an “accommodation” that tried to circumvent most of the problems by having insurance companies — rather than religious employers — provide the birth control coverage through a separate rider and at no cost to the employer.

While that move appeased some concerns, Catholic bishops and others argued that the religious exemption was still too narrow and could set a dangerous precedent by appearing to allow the government to determine what groups within a faith should be considered religious.

Others said many religious groups self-insure in order to save money, and so having the insurer pay for contraception coverage rather than the employer made no difference because insurer and employer are one and the same.

The 32-page proposal, published March 16 in the Federal Register, goes out of its way to state that “this religious exemption is intended solely for purposes of the contraceptive coverage requirement” and does not “set a precedent for any other purpose.” 

“Whether an employer is designated as ‘religious’ for these purposes is not intended as a judgment about the mission, sincerity or commitment of the employer, and the use of such designation is limited to defining the class that qualifies for this specific exemption,” the proposed rule states.

The other main innovation in the proposal is to have a “third-party administrator of the group health plan or some other independent entity” assume responsibility for the contraception coverage for self-insured organizations, with various proposals for ensuring that self-insured groups with religious objections would not directly or indirectly pay for the birth control policy.

Student health plans

In addition to fears about having to provide coverage for morally objectionable services and procedures for employees, religious colleges and universities have grappled with health coverage for students. The proposal includes a final rule governing student health plans that seeks to allay their fears. 

According to a news release from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in the same way that religious colleges and universities will not have to pay, arrange or refer for contraceptive coverage for their employees, they will not have to do so for their students who will get such coverage directly and separately from their insurer. 

While that is positive news, University of Mobile President Mark Foley said he is deeply concerned that the administration continues to infringe upon First Amendment protections. The constitutional rights of independent employers of faith and conscience continue to be ignored, he said.

Andrew Westmoreland, president of Samford University in Birmingham, shares Foley’s concern and wants to see the administration do more than just “respect religious liberty.”

“Ultimately I hope that the administration moves beyond grudging respect for our liberty to enthusiastic endorsement of our rights under the Constitution,” Westmoreland said.

In addition to religious liberty, David Potts, president of Judson College in Marion, said he worries about the potential erosion of Christian colleges’ “ability to deliver Christ-centered educational opportunities.”

In a news release, Strange noted that religious freedom is “our ‘first freedom’ under the United States Constitution.”

“The people of Alabama have recognized the importance of this freedom and have enshrined it in their Constitution as well,” he said. “Alabama law does not allow anyone to be forced to offer a product that is against his or her religious beliefs or conscience.”

That’s why Strange is seeking to join a lawsuit filed by Eternal Word Television Network, a global Catholic television, radio and news network based in Birmingham, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama on Feb. 9.

He filed a motion to intervene in the lawsuit on the grounds that the mandate requires Alabama to regulate its health insurance market in a way that violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Alabama Religious Freedom Amendment and other laws.

“The issue is simple: Either Alabamians and Americans around the country will be allowed to exercise their religious freedom to say ‘no’ to something they disagree with or they won’t,” Strange said. “We hope the Obama administration will listen and adopt a position that supports our first freedom rather than undermines it.” 


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