.- The editorial board of USA Today disagreed with the Obama administrationâs claim that its recent contraception mandate respects the religious freedom of groups who will be forced to comply with it.
The board said that justifications offered by Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, âsidestep the central issueâ of religious freedom.
Sebelius penned a Feb. 5 article in USA Today arguing that the narrow religious exemption included in the recent contraception mandate is an attempt to âstrike the right balanceâ between respecting religious beliefs and providing âpreventive health services.â
USA Today ran an accompanying editorial article arguing that the Obama administration has âfailedâ to strike this balance and has instead devised a policy that is âcontrary to both Catholic doctrine and constitutional guarantees of religious freedom.â
The articles come amid growing controversy surrounding Sebeliusâ Jan. 20 announcement that virtually all employers will soon be required to purchase health insurance plans that cover sterilization and contraception â including drugs that cause abortion â at no cost to their employees.
The move sparked massive displays of protest from religious organizations that have moral objections to the new requirements.
Although the mandate includes a religious exemption it has been heavily criticized for its narrow scope. The exemption excludes the vast majority of religious groups because it applies only to organizations that primarily restrict their employment and services to members of their own faith.
In her article, Sebelius defended free coverage of âpreventive servicesâ as âone of the key benefits of the 2010 health care law.â
She argued that âvirtually all American women use contraception at some point in their livesâ and that contraception has health benefits but is often prohibitively expensive.
USA Today responded in its editorial that good medical intentions âare not sufficient grounds to override religious freedom.â
It noted that the government is free to â and in fact, already does â promote contraception in other ways that do not coerce religious organizations to violate their teachings.
Sebelius said that the administration recognized that âmany religious organizations have deeply held beliefsâ opposing the requirements of the mandate, and has provided an exemption for âreligious organizations that primarily employ people of their own faith.â
The editorial acknowledged that an exemption exists for many âchurches and other houses of worship,â but observed that this exemption does not extend to âorganizations that employ or serve large numbers of people of different faiths,â which is a defining element âof many Catholic colleges, hospitals and charities.â
Sebelius also justified the mandate by arguing that 28 states already ârequire contraception to be covered by insurance,â and eight of these states do not allow for a religious exemption.
The editorial responded by pointing out that the majority of these states have even âbroader exemptionsâ than that offered by the federal mandate, and several others that do not have an explicit exemption still provide ways for organizations with moral objections to âget around the mandate.â
âThe First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom deserves more weight than the administration allowed,â the editorial said.
It added that individuals freely choose employers and should therefore be able to choose to work for an institution that does not offer free contraception coverage.
The board argued that the government âshould never try to force a religiously affiliated institution to violate a central tenet of its faith.â
USA Today editors urged the Obama administration to âreopen discussion with those affectedâ negatively by the mandate and seek a compromise that will âwiden the exemption in a suitable way.â