An uncomfortable backdrop lay behind President Obama's address to the annual National Prayer Breakfast Thursday, as religious groups have generated increasing concern over his administration's mandate to cover contraceptives under the 2010 health care law. Evangelicals have been joining Catholics in voicing growing concerns over the requirement to cover certain contraceptives such as Plan B (or "the morning-after pill"), as well as the Obama administration's narrow religious exemption of churches.
The President said Thursday that the administration is "linking arms with faith-based groups across the country" but did not address faith-based groups' response to his administration's policy. The night before, director of Domestic Policy Council Cecilia Muñoz defended the mandate, noting that most Catholic women have used contraception, 28 states already require contraception coverage, and comparing the cost of contraceptives to unintended pregnancy.
Several Christian college presidents took their concerns this week to their legislators in Washington, D.C., during the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities' (CCCU) annual presidents gathering, said Shapri LoMaglio, who heads government relations for the CCCU. Christian college administrators have long held concerns over whether they would be able to apply for federal funding if they hire within a specific religious tradition and employees agree to specific standards of sexual conduct, but concern about the mandate runs even deeper since groups cannot opt out.
"This is not an option where you can choose to not participate in this program or take a certain grant. There's no discretion, which is why people are so stunned," LoMaglio said. "It's saying, 'If you exist, you will do this.'"
Even if the religious exemption extended to employees of religiously affiliated institutions, CCCU school leaders voice concerns about whether schools unaffiliated with a denomination would be exempt and whether the mandate would still apply to student health care plans. The rule includes an exemption for certain "religious employers," such as churches, but a religious employer such as parachurch groups or Catholic hospitals would not be exempt if it employs or serves large numbers of people of a different faith.
"It sets a very bad precedent. Both of principle and as a matter of tactics and politics, it's a serious misstep on the part of the administration," said Galen Carey, vice president of government relations for the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). "There needs to be a very robust religious exemption for any religious groups, not just churches."
The NAE was among several evangelicals groups "in solidarity but separately" from Catholic groups that requested a stronger religious exemption after Health and Human Services ruled in August that insurance plans must provide contraception with no copayment. In January, however, federal officials reaffirmed its position, saying the government would give church-affiliated organizations an extra year to adapt to the requirement.
"I believe this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services," said Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services.
"We saw the administration's response as saying, 'I know you like oxygen, but we'll give you a year to get used to living with out it,'" said Eric Baxter, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which filed a lawsuit on behalf of Colorado Christian University in December.