.- A diverse panel of professional men and women testified against the Obama administration's contraception mandate, calling the rule an attack on religious freedom.
“As a Muslim-American woman and an academic, I have spent my career fighting for women's and minority's rights,” said Asma Uddin, an attorney at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
She added that “the fact that I must be here today to explain why our constitutional rights exist is extremely offensive to me personally.”
Uddin spoke at a Feb. 28 hearing before the full House Judiciary Committee which discussed the administration's controversial contraception mandate.
The federal rule – announced on Jan. 20 by U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius – will soon require employers to purchase health care plans that include coverage of contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs.
Faced with a storm of protest, President Barack Obama promised the inclusion of an “accommodation” for religious freedom. He said on Feb. 10 that instead of directly purchasing the controversial coverage, employers will be forced to buy health care plans from insurance companies that will be required to offer the coverage for free.
Uddin, however, called this accommodation “merely a smokescreen.” She said it is likely that insurance companies will “simply spread the costs” to employers through increased premiums.
She also noted that the “accommodation” does not address self-insured religious organizations, as well as for-profit businesses and individuals with religious objections to the mandate.
Uddin was involved in the recent Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC case in which the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the Obama administration’s narrow view of religion.
The Becket Fund has now filed lawsuits contesting the mandate on behalf of EWTN, Belmont Abbey College, Ave Maria University and Colorado Christian University.
Uddin acknowledged that “there are many important health concerns affecting women today” and said that her goal was not to “dispute any of these claims or women’s access to them.”
She said that her clients “do not seek to prevent women from accessing these abortion drugs, but they do object to having to provide them against their conscience.”
“Women, too, seek the freedom to live in accordance with their sincerely held religious beliefs,” she said. “Religious freedom is a right enjoyed by everyone, and it is just as much in women’s interest to
protect that right as it is in men’s.”
Jeanne Monahan, director of the Center for Human Dignity at the Family Research Council, said the mandate shows a “profound discrimination against people of faith.”
“While diseases or complications related to pregnancy should be treated, pregnancy itself is not a disease or illness,” she said.
Monahan also observed that Obama’s promised “accommodation” was never written into the regulation, which was finalized in its original form.
Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., chairman of the U.S. bishops’ religious liberty committee, criticized the mandate for its “absurd and surreal consequences.”
He said that Obama’s “accommodation” is merely a “legally unenforceable promise” to change the way the mandate is applied to those who object to it, without granting them an actual exemption.
Under the mentality behind the mandate, he said, “choice” has come to mean “force.”
The choice to use contraception is firmly established in the law and is not being threatened, he said. Rather, the question at hand is whether government can force religious individuals and institutions to provide coverage in violation of their religious beliefs.
The bishop also observed an inconsistency in the Health and Human Services Department’s behavior.
While the department has insisted that all employers across the country must provide contraception, it has decided to allow individual states to decide which “essential health benefits” – such as prescription drugs, emergency services and hospitalization – must be covered under new health care law.
Bishop Lori said that the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act that has been introduced in Congress would “help bring the world aright again” by explicitly protecting those who sponsor, purchase or provide health plans, allowing them to follow their religious and moral beliefs under the new mandates put in place as part of the health care reform act.
He noted that this act would not expand conscience protections beyond their present limits, but would instead retain the freedoms that have long been in place.
The U.S. bishops have joined with numerous other academic institutions and religious groups in calling for legislative efforts to repeal the contraception mandate.