Religious Liberty Does Not Grant A License To Deny The Rights Of Others, Americans United Tells Congressional Panel

Church-State Watchdog Group Argues Against Sweeping Exemptions For Religious Groups In Health Care Law’s Birth Control Mandate

Religiously affiliated organizations do not have a religious liberty right to deny their employees birth control coverage in health care plans, Americans United for Separation of Church and State told a congressional panel today.

In written testimony submitted today to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, rejected arguments by conservative activists that private employers have a “conscience” right to tailor health care plans to meet their theological beliefs.

“Women – not their employers – should be allowed to make decisions about their healthcare and their religious beliefs,” Lynn wrote in the testimony. “A woman may not share the religious beliefs of their employer or practice religion in exactly the same way her employer does. It is the woman’s right to exercise her religion freely and make her own decisions about reproductive health, even if she is employed by an organization that holds a different position on these matters.”

Lynn warned that broad exemptions based on religious belief could result in employees being denied vital services.

“For example, an employer who works for an individual who believes the Bible proscribes blood transfusions could be denied coverage for that life saving procedure or services related to the procedure,” reads the testimony. “An employee who, in this tough job market, takes a job with an individual who opposes traditional medicine for religious reasons could be denied insurance that covers any service or item beyond prayer therapy.  And, an employee who works for an adherent of Scientology could be denied most psychiatric services.”

Lynn’s written testimony noted that the birth control regulations promulgated by the Department of Health and Human Services exempt houses of worship. They cover only religiously affiliated entities such as hospitals, church colleges and social-service agencies. These agencies, Lynn noted, receive substantial taxpayer support and hire people from many different theological perspectives.

Under a compromise announced last week, religiously affiliated organizations do not have to pay directly for birth control. The costs will be shouldered by insurance companies, which will offer contraceptive coverage to women who want it. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and right-wing groups have denounced the compromise.

Lynn called the new rules reasonable.

“The separation of church and state means that the government will not force one religious view or doctrine upon the people,” Lynn’s testimony observes. “Expansion of the Obama compromise, however, would allow one particular religious doctrine to govern our public health policies at the expense of the health, safety, and religious conscience rights of the women they employ.”

Concludes the testimony, “The religious exemption compromise attempts to strike a balance and not promote the private interests of one religion over the conscience of employees. This rule allows women – not their employers – to make decisions about their healthcare and their religious beliefs.”

ADDENDUM

At a hearing today on “religious liberty” issues before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) mentioned Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, whom he suggested had been invited to appear as a witness.

The hearing examined issues related to a recent regulation issued by the Department of Health and Human Services to require religiously affiliated institutions to provide health care plans that include coverage of contraceptives to employees.

Americans United wishes to clarify the matter of Lynn’s appearance. Democrats on the panel originally contemplated asking Lynn to testify as their witness, but they ultimately decided to invite a female law student to represent them, asserting that the hearing should include a woman participant. Republicans on the committee, however, refused to allow her to appear.

Lynn issued the following statement:

“I was open to testify at today’s hearing, but I understand and support the minority’s decision to ask a woman to take part because this issue would affect women's access to contraceptives and the right to conscience. I appreciate that I was given the opportunity to provide written testimony. I am disappointed, however, by the imbalance on the panel and the lack of women's voices on an issue that has terrific impact on them. When the claim of ‘conscience’ by large religions collides with that of an individual woman, it is her right to make her own moral decision that must be saved.”

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.