Obamacare is no threat to religious freedom

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Sister Simone Campbell: Affordable Care Act requires employers to provide employees with plans that include contraceptive coverage

Administration offers faith-based employers a way of opting out of requirement, she says

Editor’s Note: Sister Simone Campbell is the executive director of NETWORK: A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby. She has led four cross-country “Nuns on the Bus” trips, and is the author of “A Nun on the Bus: How All of Us Can Create Hope, Change, and Community,” published by HarperCollins. Follow her on Twitter @sr_simone. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

CNN  — 

Catholic teaching tells us that access to quality, affordable health care is a basic human right. That is why, during the final days of congressional debate on the Affordable Care Act, I organized a letter from the leaders of thousands of Catholic sisters calling on lawmakers to support this pro-life, pro-family legislation. In the end, Catholic members of Congress proved decisive in passing the bill.

It is hard to believe that six years later some of the law’s opponents are still fighting it in court, and that religion is at the heart of their strategy.

Sister Simone Campbell

First, it is important to note that the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) is working. In states that haven’t obstructed the law’s Medicaid expansion, the number of uninsured people has been cut in half. Health care cost inflation is the slowest in our nation’s history. Millions of people are no longer an illness away from bankruptcy or worse. This is a success story that all Americans – especially my fellow Catholics – should celebrate.

Even so, a small core of misguided people are working to undermine the Affordable Care Act at every turn. Even though the Supreme Court has twice upheld it against politically motivated legal challenges, it is once again before the court this term in a case called Zubik v. Burwell. Oral arguments are scheduled for Wednesday.

The ACA’s implementing regulations require employers to provide their employees with health insurance plans that include contraceptive coverage. The language in these regulations is the result of the Obama administration listening to faith leaders’ concerns about sincerely held religious objections; the administration has provided faith-based employers with a way of opting out of this requirement.

All they have to do is sign a form saying they object. This notifies the government of their religious objections to providing coverage of contraception. From there, those employers play no role in the provision of the contraceptive coverage. The government coordinates with the insurance company to ensure that women working for the religious objector have the same access to contraception as everyone else.

In other words, the accommodation policy simply asks the conscientious objector to object. Nothing more, and nothing less. The Zubik challengers nevertheless argue that even this requirement violates their religious liberty. They are mistaken.

Religious liberty is a fundamental value. That is why it is protected in the First Amendment to the Constitution. However, in our pluralistic society the government is often called on to balance competing liberty interests – a difficult task requiring compromises that respect the freedom and dignity of all sides and, to the extent possible, provide everyone with the space necessary to exercise his or her own conscience.

In this case, that means an accommodation that respects the liberty of both the faith-based employer and its female employees.

The accommodation at issue in Zubik does just that. It honors the sincere beliefs of faith-based employers by cutting them out of the process of providing contraception while also protecting the interests of millions of women by ensuring their equal access to contraception.

The alternative policy – urged by the Zubik challengers – does not achieve this balance. It simply lets the religious beliefs of a faith-based employer supersede the health care needs of its employees – no matter the worker’s faith or what her conscience tells her is best for herself and her family.

To honor our nation’s tradition of religious liberty, we must honor the beliefs of both employers and employees. Justice Anthony Kennedy has already recognized as much, observing in a previous case that while religious liberty “is essential to preserving” the religious believer’s “own dignity,” the actions of religious believers cannot “unduly restrict other persons, such as employees, in protecting their own interests, interests the law deems compelling.”

Along with millions of American Catholics, I believe strongly in protecting people’s religious liberty. But, consistent with my faith, I also believe in the freedom of conscience and the dignity of everyone. That is why I support the administration’s accommodation for religious employers.

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