SBC leaders welcome proposal to revise HHS mandate

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WASHINGTON (BP) -- Southern Baptist leaders expressed gratitude and hope at news the Trump administration has drafted a rule to protect the freedom of conscience of religious institutions that object to the abortion/contraception mandate established under President Obama.

The White House Office of Management and Budget has provided notice on its website it is reviewing an "interim final rule" regarding the controversial requirement, The New York Times reported May 29. The notification followed by less than four weeks an executive order from President Trump directing the secretaries of three federal departments to consider revising rules to protect the religious freedom of the mandate's objectors.

The mandate, issued by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to help implement the 2010 health care law, requires employers to provide their workers with coverage for contraceptives, including those with mechanisms that can potentially induce abortions. More than 90 religious nonprofits -- including Southern Baptist organizations GuideStone Financial Resources and four universities -- legally challenged the regulation's failure to provide an adequate accommodation for their objections.

GuideStone President O.S. Hawkins voiced gratitude for the report.

"While we won't know what the interim final rule will be until its release," Hawkins said in a written statement for Baptist Press, "we are grateful for an administration that recognizes the importance of protecting religious liberty and look forward to a rule that protects the varied and various Christian schools and missions ministries we serve from the threat of crippling fines."

Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), said he is "hopeful that the administration will follow through on their commitment to reverse existing policy that has left many Americans vulnerable to overreach by the federal government."

"The hostile attitude toward tens of millions of law-abiding Americans seen in previous years is tragic, as is the audacity of a state that believes it can annex the human conscience," Moore said in written comments for BP.

Frank S. Page, president of the Southern Baptist Executive Committee, told BP in written remarks he is grateful to God the president is "doing the right thing."

"Our nation has held dear both the principle and the practice of religious liberty for more than 200 years," Page said. "It is unconscionable to expect persons and employers to act outside of their faith and conscience. This commitment to religious liberty has been threatened by a very secular agenda over the last years.

"I am grateful for yet another example of our president's commitment to religious liberty and that he has again kept his promise to protect our freedoms."

A supposed copy of the draft regulation was leaked today (May 31). Becket, a religious liberty organization that represents some of the institutions challenging the HHS accommodation, said the leaked version would protect the religious organizations from the mandate.

The Baptist universities that are parties in lawsuits challenging the mandate's failure to provide an adequate accommodation are East Texas Baptist, Houston Baptist, Oklahoma Baptist and Truett McConnell.

Last May, the U.S. Supreme Court nullified multiple federal appeals court decisions against the religious institutions and blocked the Obama administration from imposing fines on them. The justices told the appeals courts involved to give the parties an opportunity to reach a solution "that accommodates petitioners' religious exercise while at the same time ensuring that women covered by petitioners' health plans receive full and equal health coverage, including contraceptive coverage." No agreement was reached before Obama left office.

When it issued the controversial rule in August 2011, HHS provided an exemption for churches and their auxiliaries but did not extend it to non-church-related, nonprofit organizations that object. HHS proposed nearly 10 accommodations for the objecting institutions, but none proved satisfactory to their conscience concerns.

The federally approved contraceptives for which coverage is required by the mandate include the intrauterine device (IUD) and such drugs as Plan B, the "morning-after" pill. Both the IUD and "morning-after" pill possess post-fertilization mechanisms that potentially can cause abortions by preventing implantation of tiny embryos. The rule also covers "ella," which -- in a fashion similar to the abortion drug RU 486 -- can act even after implantation to end the life of the child.

GuideStone, the SBC's health and financial benefits entity, is exempt from the mandate, but it serves ministries that are required to obey the requirement.

The ERLC and two other SBC entities -- the International Mission Board and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as Southern's president, R. Albert Mohler Jr. -- filed a friend-of-the-court brief in 2016 that urged the Supreme Court to rule that the HHS accommodation violates religious freedom.

In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby's conscience-based challenge to the abortion/contraception mandate. In its 5-4 opinion in that case, the justices upheld objections to the requirement by "closely held" for-profit companies such as family owned businesses.

Trump issued his executive order -- which also addressed other religious freedom issues -- on the National Day of Prayer, May 4, in a ceremony at the White House Rose Garden.

Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.
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