Federal Rule Protects Nuns' Stance on Obamacare Mandate

Federal Rule Protects Nuns' Stance on Obamacare Mandate
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Federal Rule Protects Nuns' Stance on Obamacare Mandate
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
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A federal rule was just published in the Federal Register.  A single rule in a document that runs over 80,000 pages long may seem a small thing, but this particular rule marks the defeat of what many Americans perceive as an extended assault on religious freedom begun by the Obama administration six long years ago. 

It was in 2012 that then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius inserted a “mandate” into the Affordable Care Act requiring all employers, including family-owned companies and sweet little old nuns, to provide abortifacients and other types of antenatal drugs through their insurance plans.

This Obamacare mandate, slipped in quietly as a kind of afterthought, had the effect of rousing a hitherto sleeping giant: Americans of faith.

Six years later—six years of passionate protests, legal challenges going all the way to the Supreme Court, and a new administration that puts a premium on religious liberty—Obamacare’s assault on conscience rights is history.  The Constitution’s “free exercise” protection (“Congress shall make no law…prohibiting the free exercise” of religion) has found respect in law again.  This week, at long last, the federal government published a final rule expanding conscience protections for entities like The Little Sisters of the Poor. 

These nuns, who take care of the indigent elderly while living lives of the strictest poverty, were one of the first groups to sue over the Obamacare mandate.  They argued that the crippling fines in the mandate for those who could not comply without violating their faith would put them out of business.  Their pleasant, gentle faces, framed in white wimples, became a potent symbol to all those who had trusted President Obama to protect their most deeply held religious beliefs--and had been sorely disappointed.  In fighting the nuns relentlessly all the way to the Supreme Court, Obama and his administration became the face of religious intolerance and disdain for treasured American norms of pluralism and mutual respect. 

While no giant, I was one of the sleepy Americans pulled out of our political slumber by the implications of the Obamacare mandate. 

A working physician and mother of a large family, I had never had the time or inclination to pay much attention to politics.  I was comfortable thinking that basic American freedoms (like First Amendment ones) were so foundational, so well established that they could never be truly endangered.  The promulgation of the mandate pulled the sleep mask from my eyes.

 Before long I was speaking at a rally in downtown Miami to a crowd of energized and sympathetic people of all colors and walks of life. As a woman doctor and a faithful Catholic, I was able to explain that the government could have provided contraceptive and abortifacient services to every woman in the country without making citizens violate their faith.  In fact, through Title X, the federal government was already spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year doing just that -- all without doing violence to the Constitution and anyone’s treasured liberties. But the Obamacare rule changed the game.

Since then I have never gone back to political sleep.  I know I’m not alone among people of faith. Indeed, I believe the Trump presidency was in great part a response to the Obama administration’s abuse of cherished American rights and traditions (for example, respect for conscientious objectors).  President Trump’s promise to pick Supreme Court nominees who interpret our laws and Constitution according to the text—thereby preserving important liberties--was the decisive factor for many voters who were otherwise unconvinced.  By keeping his promise to these voters with Justice Neil Gorsuch and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the president has rewarded their trust, and renewed their confidence in the judicial branch’s ability to defend our Constitutional liberties.

 Of course, the battle continues. California and Pennsylvania continue to harass the Little Sisters of the Poor. These two states are even now suing the federal government to take away the nuns’ religious exemption to the mandate – an exemption that a Supreme Court decision affirmed in 2016. Yes, the implacability of those who want to force religious people to violate their consciences has, it seems, no bounds.  For now, however, the final rule published this week writes that religious exemption into federal administrative law.  The forces of religious intolerance are being held at bay, and the Little Sisters of the Poor can get back to what they do best: lovingly care for the least among us. 

Americans of faith, however, are not likely to go back to their complacent sleep.  We have been roused, and we will remain on guard.  

Dr. Grazie Pozo Christie is a policy adviser for The Catholic Association.

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