A leaked rule change from the White House that would allow organizations of all sorts to opt out of providing medical services that conflict with their moral beliefs was welcomed by advocates of religious liberty.
“Expanding the exemption removes religious and moral obstacles that entities and certain individuals may face who otherwise wish to participate in the healthcare market,” reads a line of the 125-page draft.
The White House refused comment, calling the document made public by the news outlet Vox an “alleged draft.” However, organizations that both supported and opposed the change, as well as lawmakers in Congress, were treating the draft as an actual administration document, with the caveat that federal regulations can change significantly in the final stage of White House review.
As part of the Obama administration’s signature Affordable Care Act, most businesses and organizations were required to provide insurance that covers the measures, at no cost to employees. While houses of worship were exempt, the requirement proved controversial for religious nonprofits and private businesses whose owners felt that complying with the mandate violated their tenets of faith.
In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled, in the landmark Hobby Lobby decision, that some private companies can avoid the requirement on religious grounds. Yet, the changes that the previous administration made in the wake of the ruling were deemed insufficient by many religious organizations, who still felt they were being forced to be a party to the delivery of goods and services they found objectionable.
“As it was, the mandate required religious adherents to violate their religious beliefs,” Rabbi Abba Cohen, vice-president for federal affairs of Agudath Israel of America, told Hamodia. “While the issue at hand was not one that affected our community specifically, the idea that government can generally force such violation threatens the basis of the fundamental right of all Americans to religious liberty and is of great concern.”
Last year, a shorthanded Supreme Court could not reach a decision in Zubik v. Burwell, a case that pitted a collection of Christian organizations against the Obama administration, claiming the adjusted regulations still forced them to violate their beliefs. The result was that the court issued a rare directive saying that they felt it was possible for the government and objectors to reach a common ground. Mark Rienzi, senior counsel with Becket, a law firm that represented the Little Sisters of the Poor, one of the co-plaintiffs in the case, said the rule change was “better late than never.”
“At long last, the United States government acknowledges that people can get [the medical services in question] without forcing nuns to provide them. That is sensible, fair, and in keeping with the Supreme Court’s order,” he said.
Several Orthodox organizations filed briefs in favor of religious objectors in the Zubik case. Two particular issues they addressed were the government’s limiting the definition of a religious organization to “houses of worship,” as well as decisions by several lower courts that seemed to make a determination based on their understanding of the objector’s belief systems. Rabbi Cohen was pleased that the rule change appears to address both issues.
“We do not believe that the law’s protection should apply any more, or in a different way, to houses of worship than to other religious entities,” he said. “The Obama administration’s ‘accommodation’ was still problematic. Government does not have the power or the competence to decide whether a certain arrangement violates or accommodates religious obligations or restrictions. That is a religious determination that government cannot make and remains within the authority of religious leaders.”
The leaked draft from the Department of Health and Human Services would allow any employer to opt out of the mandate on religious or moral grounds. Immediately upon taking office, President Donald Trump said his administration would work to loosen health-care regulations seen as infringing on religious conscience. No timetable for a final regulation has been given.
Last month, an executive order dealing with matters of religious liberty contained a vague directive to federal agencies, with instructions to “address conscience-based objections” related to the Affordable Care Act. The clause was seen as a foreshadowing of more solid regulatory changes.
With reporting by Associated Press