September 2012 Church & State | People & Events

Religious organizations have no right to meddle in Americans’ private lives by demanding the power to restrict access to birth control, Americans United told officials at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently.

In comments filed with the HHS in June, Americans United advised the agency that the creation of a new accommodation for religiously affiliated organizations is unnecessary.

“No religious organization’s rights are violated when an individual employee decides to use birth control,” said AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn in a press statement. “To be blunt, religious organizations should put an immediate stop to interfering with the intimate personal lives of others.”

The Roman Catholic hierarchy and its Religious Right allies are pressuring the Obama administration to allow religiously affiliated hospitals and colleges to deny birth control coverage to their employees even if the coverage is paid for by insurance companies. The bishops are also demanding that Catholic owners of secular businesses be allowed to deny their workers contraceptive coverage.

The bishops orchestrated a two-week crusade to attack the Obama policy. Dubbed the “Fortnight for Freedom,” events included prayer vigils, rallies, public protests and other functions.  Cardinal Timothy Dolan and other church leaders have taken to insisting that the birth control mandate is a form of religious persecution and have even invoked the names of saints who were martyred for their faith.

In addition to the HHS comment, AU’s Lynn refuted the bishops’ crusade in an array of media appearances. He told USA Today that the church-led campaign is a “clerical power grab” and that the bishops are redefining religious liberty to mean “the right to force their dogma on the unwilling.”

Lynn also said church leaders may have broader goals. He told The Washington Post, “It’s hard not to see this whole campaign as a partisan attempt to unseat President Obama…. America is a secular democracy, and public policy should reflect the public interest, not the teachings of one religion.” 

 In an appearance on Al Sharpton’s MSNBC show “Politics Nation,” Lynn said, “You know, Cardinal Dolan is completely wrong about almost everything in this debate…. There is something phony here, Al, going on about this ‘corporate conscience’— the bishops talk about a ‘corporate conscience’ of the church. I’m interested in the conscience of individual women, individual employees, individual students who want to space out children, who want to use birth control, and use it in a responsible fashion. That’s the conscience we ought to be protecting, not some kind of phony corporate conscience. That’s even sillier than corporate free speech.”

In its comment to HHS, Americans United pointed out that two courts have upheld a religious exemption similar to the one already put in place by the Obama administration. The real threat to religious liberty, AU says, is in broadly expanding the exemption because that would result in Americans’ medical care being subject to sectarian oversight.

If a new accommodation is granted, AU said, it must be as narrow as possible. In addition, all for-profit businesses and any organizations that accept direct grants and contracts from the government should not be exempt from the birth control mandate. 

In February, the Obama administration announced a rule that would exempt certain religious employers from making birth control accessible directly to their employees through employer-provided health care plans. It now seeks to create a new accommodation for a broader category of religiously affiliated groups that would free them of the insurance mandate, but permit their employees to get free coverage from a third party. 

Lynn, noting that houses of worship are exempt from the policy entirely, said the original rule was a good solution. He noted that many Americans rely on birth control and many women use it for medical reasons.

In its comments, which were drafted by Legislative Director Maggie Garrett, Americans United expressed support for reasonable accommodations for religious organizations. But, AU warns, such accommodations must not be applied so broadly that individual privacy and medical needs are jeopardized. 

Giving religious groups too much power in this area could subject people to unwanted clerical interference in private matters, AU asserted.