HHS Mandate 101
Why you should care

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


The Obama administration and its allies continue to defend a regulation mandating that Catholics offer and purchase health-insurance plans that violate their consciences. The administration is counting on confusion to keep this from becoming a permanent political wound. But Obama voters — including prominent ones — see this not as an issue about birth control or even abortion (an issue they’ve overlooked in Obama’s case before), but as an issue of religious liberty and the nature of our nation.

Mark Rienzi walks through some of the most frequently asked questions with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez. Rienzi is senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and a professor of constitutional law at the Catholic University of America (Lopez’s alma mater).

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: So what exactly is the problem with the HHS mandate?

MARK RIENZI: The mandate forces individuals and organizations to violate their religious principles by providing their employees with drugs that cause abortion, as well as with contraception and sterilization. Whatever one thinks about the debate between “choice” and “life,” we should all be able to agree that only willing people should have to participate in abortions.

This country was founded by people of all different faiths and backgrounds. We have a great tradition of finding ways to work with people so as not to force them to violate their religious beliefs. The Obama administration’s refusal to do that here violates the Constitution and federal law.

LOPEZ: Is there a smart shorthand that captures that?

RIENZI: Sure: Tyranny.

LOPEZ: But there is an exemption in the mandate. Why is that not enough?

RIENZI: The existing exemption is incredibly narrow and actually penalizes those charitable organizations that are kind enough to help people who are not members of their own faith. A Catholic soup kitchen, for example, would fail to qualify simply because they serve hungry Jews, atheists, and Muslims along with hungry Catholics. The same would be true for inner-city Catholic schools, which frequently educate poor children of all faiths. On top of that, the exception would apply only to organizations that refuse to hire members of other religions and that file tax returns as churches or religious orders. The conscience clause also applies only to organizations and not to individual business owners who may not want to pay for these services. It is, by far, the narrowest conscience clause in federal or state law.

: Is this a “war on religion”? Has Kathleen Sebelius even suggested as much?

RIENZI: Well, at the very least, it is a clear rejection of our long historical tradition of respecting individual religious freedom in this country. With this mandate and the incredibly narrow conscience clause, President Obama treats religious liberty as something that belongs to religious organizations alone, and even then only to religious organizations that behave the way he wants them to (i.e., refusing to serve and hire members of other faiths). He completely ignores (or worse, deliberately violates) the religious-freedom rights of many other religious organizations, and of many religious individuals who do not want to pay for these services.

Secretary Sebelius did say she was at war over contraceptives and abortion. I have no idea if this is what she had in mind. But whether they wanted it or not, she and the president have now provoked a powerful, cross-party, multi-faith resistance that is not about to give up its religious freedom without a fight. Who says this president can’t bring people together?