After 30 months on the fence with the goal of minimizing offense to liberal evangelicals and Catholics, the Obama administration has made a decision that's distressing many of his Christian supporters and should distress all of them.
The federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) proposed on Aug. 1 that all insurance plans, except those offered by churches or seminaries, cover the entire cost of prescription birth control pills, including abortion drugs such as Ella and Plan B, with no co-pays. Unless public protests change the minds of Obama and Company, that proposal will become a mandate at the end of next month.
The HHS-recommended exception is so narrow that Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, called it "the parish housekeeper exemption-that's about all it covers." The Associated Press led one story on the decision by noting the dismay of Catholic medical personnel who had "defied" their bishops to support Obamacare, expecting that they would receive a conscience exception.
The proposal itself is bad and so is the philosophy behind it. HHS wants to define a religious organization only as one that "primarily serves persons who share its religious tenets" and "has the inculcation of religious values as its purpose." Unless the Obama administration backs down, thousands of Christian missions, hospitals, crisis pregnancy centers, and relief agencies that serve all comers, not primarily parishioners, will no longer be considered religious organizations.
The HHS definition seems like one more likely to arise in a Muslim country that reluctantly allows churches as long as they don't reach beyond their existing membership. And yet the apostle James described "religion that is pure and undefiled" as one in which Christians "visit orphans and widows in their affliction." He didn't write that only church members should receive visits, and he condemned those who preach to the destitute, "'Go in peace, be warmed and filled,' without giving them the things needed for the body."
Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, offered a pungent analysis of the proposed regulation, which "conveniently ignores the underlying principle of Catholic charitable actions: we help people because we are Catholic, not because our clients are. There's no need to show your baptismal certificate in the hospital emergency room, the parish food pantry, or the diocesan drug rehab program."
Some Catholics are threatening a break with the Obama administration on this issue. Michael Sean Winter wrote in National Catholic Reporter, "Keeping the rule as is would give me great pause in casting my ballot for Barack Obama next year, not because he failed to do right by my Church, but because anyone who fails to grasp the constitutional issue here probably should not be entrusted with the post of Chief Magistrate under that same Constitution."
I haven't heard the same semi-ultimatum from liberal evangelicals, but let's hope the largely Protestant "Circle of Protection" (see "Making the CASE" in this issue) will take a strong stand in favor of protecting religious liberty and not just governmental programs. Christians from past generations who formed religious organizations to provide homes for orphans or witness against slavery would be surprised to learn that their groups weren't really religious.
-with reporting by Edward Lee Pitts
NOTE: Those wanting to comment on the regulation can go to regulations.gov. In the slot for "select document type" choose "proposed rule." In the slot for "enter keyword or ID" type "HHS-OS-2011-0022-0001," then press "search." You'll be at a page where you can type your comment.