Letter to HHS secretary from faith-based service organizations

The Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, an association of faith-based service organizations, has written a strong letter to HHS Secretary Sebelius, expressing their concern for the creation of two classes of religious organizations that is at the core of the HHS mandate.  This is an issue of prime importance, though it is seldom addressed in the sensationalist media, which would rather focus on the supposed “war on women” and the purported goal of the Catholic Church to snatch contraceptives away from all women.  

The IRFA is not a Catholic organization.  In fact, the letter acknowledges,

Our organizations, and we ourselves, do not all share the same view of the moral acceptability of the contraceptive drugs and services that comprise the contraceptives mandate. We have varied views on the adequacy of the “accommodation” that the administration has promised for religious organizations with deep objections to the contraceptives mandate but that are not eligible for the narrow religious employer exemption. Our organizations are involved in different areas of service. We belong to different faiths.

The letter strongly opposes the creation in federal law, by this mandate, two classes of religious organizations,  

churches—considered sufficiently focused inwardly to merit an exemption and thus full protection from the mandate; and faith-based service organizations—outwardly oriented and given a lesser degree of protection. 

The letter writers point out that churches, which are primarily worship-oriented, and faith-based service-oriented organizations are equally religious organizations.   As they affirm,

We deny that it is within the jurisdiction of the federal government to define, in place of religious communities, what constitutes true religion and authentic ministry.

The HHS mandate creates a two-class structure of religious organizations, protecting those focused inward on worship, and offers little or not protection for the religious freedom of service-oriented organizations.  T

As the letter notes, the extremely narrow definition of religious employer in the HHS mandate, essentially restricting religious employers to houses of worship, will be used as a definition in other federal laws, despite administration claims to the contrary.  

The administration has said that the narrow definition of “religious employer” is not intended to be a precedent in federal law and that the two-class system is not meant to disparage the mission or motivation of non-exempt religious organizations. Yet these are only intentions, whereas the narrow definition of religious employer and the narrow scope of the exemption have been inserted, despite widespread protest, into actual federal law. We note, as well, that the administration itself has justified the narrow exemption by its use in the insurance rules of several states. The presence of the narrow exemption in federal regulations can only make it more likely to be used in additional federal policies, notwithstanding any current promises.

The IRFA suggests that there is only one solution for Secretary Sebelius, and that is:

…eliminate the two-class scheme of religious organization in the preventive services regulations. Extend to faith-based service organizations the same exemption that the regulations currently limit to churches. This would bring the preventive services regulations into line with the long-standing, respected, and court-tested provisions of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act [§§702, 703(e)] which provide a specific employment exemption for every kind of religious organization, whether they be defined as “a religious corporation, association, educational institution, or society.”

The letter ends with a final call on Secretary Sebelius:

please restore the federal government’s full respect for faith-based educational, social-service, and health organizations as authentic vehicles for religious service. 

The letter from the IRFA makes some very cogent points.  However, we need to remember that the First Amendment of the Constitution safeguards the religious freedom of individuals.  As the IFRA letter notes, it is dangerous to allow the government to restrict freedom of religion protections to only houses of worship.  It would be equally dangerous to restrict those protections to only faith-based organizations, such as churches, charities, and schools.  Religious freedom protections apply also to businesses and individual persons.  

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