HHS Mandate 101
Why you should care

Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty


LOPEZ: Is this about birth control or religious freedom?

RIENZI: The only issue here is whether the government will force unwilling religious objectors to give up their religious beliefs. There is no problem of access to birth control in this country. As the administration never stops saying, the stuff is popular and provided by most private employers. And when private employers don’t provide it, the federal government already gives it out to people who want it through Title X funding.

Let me give you an example. At the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, we represent the monks at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina. They are Catholic, and they have religious objections to providing these drugs. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the federal government already provides contraception to more than 100,000 people in North Carolina, from more than 100 federally funded Title X clinics. There is simply no reason that the government can’t provide contraception to any employee of Belmont Abbey who happens to want it.

So the question is not whether people will be able to get birth control — they can, and they will. People get plenty of contraception today without making Catholic monks give it out. The question is whether the government will use the issue to force a small religious minority to conform to the government’s view that birth control is a great idea. And that’s something the Constitution and federal law clearly forbid.

LOPEZ: What’s this “conscience” word all about?

RIENZI: James Madison famously said that conscience is “the most sacred of all property.” Conscience — particularly in the religious sense — is the right all of us have not to be forced by the government to violate our religion. It is the idea that in a free country, the coercive power of the government should not be used to deny people the right to freely and peacefully practice their faith. It is a right that we have always recognized in this country — from religious exceptions for Quakers who did not want to fight in the military, to religious exceptions for corrections workers who don’t want to be involved in capital punishment, to religious exceptions for health-care personnel who do not want to be involved in abortions. It is a bedrock principle of our Constitution, our history, and our basic liberty.

LOPEZ: Can the Obama administration tweak this mandate in some way to make the complaining stop?

RIENZI: A “tweak” probably won’t cut it. What they need to do is provide a complete exception to any individual or organization that has religious objections to providing these drugs. That would be simple, straightforward, and fair. It also happens to be exactly what the law requires.

LOPEZ: There is a Jeff Fortenberry/Roy Blunt bill and a Marco Rubio bill. How are they the same? How are they different? What should I be for?

RIENZI: The Rubio bill directly targets the part of the health-care law that authorized HHS to impose this type of requirement and very specifically makes clear to HHS what they should have known all along: They can’t trample on religious liberty when issuing their mandates. The Fortenberry/Blunt bill is much broader — it creates a far wider variety of protections for conscience in the health-care context. Passing it would protect not just employers, but health-care institutions and workers of all kinds. It would be a significant step forward in protecting religious liberty.

Both bills are of vital importance. One of the abortion-debate mantras is “choice.” Well, is it too much to ask that the people who pay for and provide health care also be given choice about whether they will be involved in abortions? The same Constitution that protects the right to choose abortion also protects the right not to participate in abortion. Both statutes will help protect that right and both should be enacted.