Secular groups say Obama exemptions for contraception rule are too lenient

A group of nonreligious organizations is criticizing the contraception coverage mandate under President Obama's healthcare reform law, arguing the rules are too lenient on religious employers.

In a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the 12 secular organizations argue the rules would allow too many employers to duck the requirement that their insurance coverage include contraception.

The new law requires most employers to cover contraception in their employees' health plans, but allows an exemption for “religious employers” — a carve-out the secular groups say is too widely defined and would provide undue privilege to religious organizations.

The measure has previously been attacked for being too restrictive, and in February the HHS rejected a call to allow any employer to opt out of the mandate.

The rule forces most employers to provide their employees with health plans that cover all Food and Drug Administration-approved contraception, including methods like the so-called “morning-after pill,” which anti-abortion rights groups argue is a form of abortion.

The secular groups, however, oppose the law for being too broad.

The proposed definition of “religious employers” follows a section of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) code, which defines the employers as “churches, their integrated auxiliaries, and conventions or associations of churches” and “the exclusively religious activities of any religious order.”

The letter instead proposes the definition used to exempt religious organizations from Social Security taxes, which would limit the exception to situations where both employee and employer are members of religious groups that oppose the mandate and where both had filed separate applications to be exempted.

“Allowing employers to make a unilateral decision to be exempted sets a terrible precedent for religious interference in individual choice,” the organizations write in the letter.

“If adopted, this exemption gives employers the ability to impose their particular religious beliefs on employees, infringing on the religious freedom of potentially millions of Americans,” added Edwina Rogers, the executive director of the Secular Coalition for America, one of the signers, in a statement.

Other groups signing the eight-page letter include American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, the Secular Student Alliance, the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, the Council for Secular Humanism and the American Ethical Union.

Another provision in the HHS rule would provide an “accommodation” to religious-affiliated nonprofits that would provide employees contraception coverage through an individual plan, without cost to the organization or additional premiums for the employee.

Under the proposed rule, the accommodation would be provided to nonprofit organizations that oppose providing contraception coverage for religious reasons, hold themselves as religious organizations and maintain a self-certification identifying them as such.

The secular groups think that standard is “vague and overly broad.”

They asset that the rule “opens the door not only to all of the almost one million organizations registered as public charities, but because there is no registration requirement, infinitely more.”

They also warn the requirement that a group consider itself a religious organization means “any nonprofit, regardless of its activities, run by a person of faith who believes he or she is doing ‘God’s work’ could claim this accommodation.”

The dozen organizations want the department to limit the scope of exemptible organizations to those that meet the proposed “religious employer” definition of being registered with the IRS under the religious nonprofit exemption.

Monday was the last day for the public to submit comments on the rule. The HHS announced it had received nearly 350,000 submissions.