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We need to stand up for our First Amendment rights

Thoughts from Behind the Pressline

One of the major issues with the Affordable Care Act, the health care reform legislation known as Obama Care, is that it is still a work in progress with much of its finer points still being defined and created. Over the last several years, bits and pieces of the Act have been rolled out with most due for compliance by 2014.

While the Affordable Care Act will be fodder for the up coming presidential election, various rulings and interpretations continue to be issued. One such ruling last month by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandates that nearly all health insurance plans cover sterilizations and FDA-approved contraceptives, including those that induce abortions. The Act specifies that churches and other houses of worship will be exempt from the requirement to offer insurance that covers contraception. To be eligible these institutions must show the government that they hire and serve primarily people of their own faith and have the inculcation of religious values as their primary purpose. Unfortunately some churches serve a broader focus in their communities by providing services to the underprivileged regardless of their faith affiliation. These faith-based organizations would be denied an exemption because of their service to the general public at large.

Regardless of how you may feel about issues of contraception, abortion, the Affordable Care Act or religious beliefs, the issue of this ruling goes right to the heart of our First Amendment rights. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1809, “No provision in our constitution ought to be dearer to man that that which protects the right of conscience against the enterprise of civil authority.”

The regulation is due to take effect for individual citizens and private businesses on Aug. 1, 2012, but religious institutions have until Aug. 13, 2013 to become compliant. The regulation mandates that certain FDA-approved contraceptives that can induce abortions such as Plan B and Ella, be covered through the health insurance plans without any fees or co-payments. In the past, the federal government respected conscientious objections to procedures such as sterilization that may violate religious beliefs or moral convictions. A law in effect since 1973 says that no individual is required to take part in “any part of a health service program or research activity funded in whole or in part under a program administered by the Secretary of Health and Human Services” if it is “contrary to his/her religious beliefs or moral convictions” (42 USC 300a-7 (d)). Even the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, which requires most of its health plans to cover contraception, exempts religious affiliated plans and protects the conscience rights of health professionals in other plans. Currently no federal law requires anyone to purchase, sell, sponsor or be covered by a private health plan that violates his/her conscience.

Dan Alexander is publisher and CEO of Denton Publications. He may be reached at dan@denpubs.com.

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