Christians leaders aren’t backing down on their pleas for the Obama administration to further expand religious exemptions surrounding the controversial contraceptive mandate.
The ongoing debate about religious freedom has been raging since the mandate was first announced in January, causing a massive rift between Obama and a plethora of religious leaders and congregants. In a June 11 letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, 149 faith leaders made their views on the matter known.
The letter, which can be read in full here, was assembled by Stanley Carlson-Thies who helped setup George W. Bush’s faith-based office. While numerous protestants were included in the pool of individuals signing on, no Catholic bishops joined in. As stated, the Catholic Church is pursuing its own lawsuits to help rectify the wrongs it sees inherent in the mandate. The National Catholic Register has more about the signatories:
The letter was organized by the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition that works to protect the religious identity and work of faith-based organizations throughout America. It was signed by aid organizations including World Relief and the U.S. branches of the Salvation Army and World Vision, Inc. The National Association of Evangelicals, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and the North American Baptist Conference were also represented in the letter, as well as law organizations such as Liberty Counsel and the American Center for Law and Justice.
The group did admit having a diversity of views on the issue of birth control and on the importance and viability of administration proposals that allow for some institutions to be exempt from the mandate. But the collective did, indeed, stand in agreement that the language being used to qualify and divide groups is unacceptable.
Based on administration descriptions, faith organizations are divided into two groups, they claim: churches and then faith-based service groups — the latter of which — at least a portion of which — may not qualify to be exempt. Religion News Service further explains:
“This two-class scheme protects those religious organizations focused on activities directed inward to a worship community while offering little religious freedom protection to the many religious organizations that engage in service directed outward,” the letter says.
The letter says that “both worship-oriented and service-oriented religious organizations are authentically and equally religious organizations. … We deny that it is within the jurisdiction of the federal government to define, in place of religious communities, what constitutes true religion and authentic ministry.”
Diverse critics of the mandate have found a common rallying point in opposition to the exemption definition. The regulation currently states that to qualify as exempt, an organization must be dedicated to promoting its religious values, must primarily employ and serve people who share the group’s beliefs, and must be a nonprofit.
In sum, the debate here is centered upon the government’s role in defining faith groups. While the Obama administration seeks to draw a line in the sand, faith leaders seem bent on seeing officials step out of a role that allows them to define the purpose and activities associated with these groups. In a sense, the argument that the letter touts is one that embraces a separation of church and state mentality, as the pastors and faith leaders maintain that the government’s role shouldn’t be defining churches.
While the administration has attempted to assure faith leaders that the exemptions would cover churches and most non-profits, universities and hospitals won’t be covered. Still, considering Obama’s past promises not to infringe upon religious conscious and his most recent actions doing just that, the church leaders remain cautious.