The United States Catholic bishops praised the Trump administration’s expansion of conscience exemptions for the HHS contraception mandate, calling the move a “return to common sense.”
In a joint statement, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, President of the Bishops’ conference (USCCB), and Archbishop William E. Lori, Chairman of the Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, said that the decision to provide a broad religious and moral exemption to the HHS mandate “corrects an anomalous failure by federal regulators that should never have occurred and should never be repeated.”
The story that has dominated religious liberty debates in the U.S. since 2011 has been that of the Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of Catholic nuns that was harassed by the Obama administration under the HHS mandate of the Affordable Care Act and made it all the way to the Supreme Court.
In August 2011, the Obama administration announced it would oblige all employers to pay for and provide insurance coverage for everything from sterilization to Plan B, a drug whose own FDA label warns can induce abortion. Despite loud opposition, the administration doubled down, and the Department of Health and Human Services issued the mandate, triggering the biggest religious liberty lawsuit in American history.
On Friday, the Trump administration announced new rules governing the HHS mandate, which allow conscientious objectors to opt out of Obamacare’s contraception and abortion-pill mandate for religious or moral reasons.
Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at the Becket Fund and lead attorney for the Little Sisters of the Poor, applauded the ruling, calling it “a great step forward for religious liberty.”
“The Little Sisters still need to get final relief in court, which should be easy now that the government admits it broke the law,” Rienzi said.
“This was always a big, unnecessary, and divisive culture war fight,” Rienzi told reporters. “Simply put, you don’t need nuns to give out contraceptives. They’re widely available.”
Noting that the Little Sisters were threatened with some $75 million in yearly fines each year under the original contraceptive mandate, Rienzi said it was “outrageous” that the U.S. government was “willing to crush the Little Sisters with those fines over something that was so easily done by others.”
According to the statement by the U.S. bishops, the new regulations “are good news for the Little Sisters of the Poor and others who are challenging the HHS mandate in court. We urge the government to take the next logical step and promptly resolve the litigation that the Supreme Court has urged the parties to settle.”
The new exemptions are not an innovation, the bishops added, “but instead a return to common sense, long-standing federal practice, and peaceful coexistence between church and state.”
The modified HHS mandate is not only good news for religious orders, the bishops insisted, but for all Americans.
“A government mandate that coerces people to make an impossible choice between obeying their consciences and obeying the call to serve the poor is harmful not only to Catholics but to the common good,” they said.
“Religious freedom is a fundamental right for all, so when it is threatened for some, it is threatened for all,” they said.
By expanding exemptions to the HHS mandate, President Trump made good on his promise to lift onerous burdens that violate the religious freedom of Americans.
In a letter to the Catholic Leadership Conference in October of 2016, Trump told Catholic leaders he would “make absolutely certain religious orders like The Little Sisters of Poor are not bullied by the federal government because of their religious beliefs.”
“On life, I am, and will remain, pro-life. I will defend your religious liberties and the right to fully and freely practice your religion, as individuals, business owners and academic institutions,” he said.
At his first National Day of Prayer at the White House last May, the president invited the Little Sisters on stage with him and said to them, “I want you to know that your long ordeal will soon be over.”
“We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied, or silenced anymore,” the president said. “We will never ever stand for religious discrimination.
“No American should be forced to choose between the dictates of the federal government and the tenets of their faith,” Trump added.