WASHINGTON (BP) -- The Obama administration's mandate that health insurance plans cover contraceptives that can cause abortions harms not only Baptists and other religious adherents but all Americans, two Southern Baptist ethicists told a congressional panel Feb. 16.
Their comments came during a four-and-a-half-hour hearing on the federal rule's impact on freedom of religion and conscience before the Oversight and Government Reform Committee of the House of Representatives. Ten representatives of Protestant, Catholic and Jewish bodies spoke in opposition to the mandate and what critics describe as its lack of sufficient religious and conscience protections for houses of worship, religious institutions and individuals.
C. Ben Mitchell of Union University told the committee the rule "is an unconscionable intrusion by the state into the consciences of American citizens."
"Contrary to portrayals in some of the popular media, this is not just a Catholic issue," said Mitchell, Graves professor of moral philosophy at the Baptist school in Jackson, Tenn. "All people of faith –- and even those who claim no faith –- have a stake in whether or not the government can violate the consciences of its citizenry. Religious liberty and the freedom to obey one's conscience is also not just a Baptist issue. It's an American issue enshrined in our founding documents."
Testifying as part of the same panel, Craig Mitchell of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary told members the requirement "is wrong not just for religious conservatives."
"It's wrong for all Americans, because it takes away the freedom of the citizens while emboldening the federal government to do whatever it wants," said Craig Mitchell, associate professor of Christian ethics at the seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. "It's wrong because it violates the Constitution. It's wrong because it violates religious liberty. It's wrong because it forces people to violate their consciences. ... This ruling is just plain wrong for America."
The Mitchells, who are unrelated, added their voices to the growing public dissent by Southern Baptists against the "contraceptive mandate," as it has become known. Southern Baptist leaders have joined the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, other Protestant bodies and some Jewish organizations in opposition to the rule since the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced Jan. 20 that health plans must cover contraceptives and sterilizations as preventive services for employees.
The HHS mandate requires all methods approved as birth control by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be included in a range of services offered to patients free of charge. Those FDA-endorsed contraceptives include ones that have abortion-causing properties -- "ella;" emergency contraception, such as Plan B, and the intrauterine device (IUD). Those methods all have mechanisms that can prevent tiny embryos from implanting in the uterine wall. In the case of "ella," it also can block production of the hormone progesterone, destroying the placenta that provides nutrition to the embryo and causing the unborn child's death.
Opponents of the rule especially have protested its failure to provide an adequate religious or conscience exemption. The rule includes an exception for employers who oppose paying for such coverage on religious grounds, but it is narrowly drawn. It will protect many churches and other houses of worship, but it apparently will not cover churches that may primarily serve people outside their faith. The exemption also will not extend to such faith-based organizations as schools, hospitals and social service programs.
After an onslaught of criticism, President Obama announced a change Feb. 10, saying religious organizations would not have to pay for or provide contraceptives if they object on religious grounds. Instead, he said, their insurance companies would be required to pay for such services.
Southern Baptist leaders and other opponents said Obama's solution did not address the religious liberty and conscience problems. Some described it as an "accounting gimmick" that would still require religious organizations to be complicit in paying for employees' abortion-causing contraceptives through their insurance companies.
Dub Oliver, president of East Texas Baptist University (ETBU), expressed concern about the mandate.
"Perhaps the most frightening aspect of this entire episode for ETBU is that we have no idea where this road will end," Oliver told the panel. "Today, the administration is trying to force us to provide our employees with abortion-causing drugs. What's next?
"If the government can force Catholic monks to dispense birth control, what can't the government do?" Oliver asked. "If the government can decide that East Texas Baptist University is not religious enough to have the right to religious liberty, what can't the government do? If this administration can just decide that religious believers are less important than its chosen policy goals, what can't it do?"
To add to opponents' dissatisfaction with the president's revision, HHS did not actually change the rule. As witnesses and at least one Republican committee member said in the Feb. 16 hearing, nothing changed after Obama's announcement. The Heritage Foundation reported the final regulation published Feb. 15 in the Federal Register did not include the language described by Obama.
The witnesses at the House panel hearing expressed a determination not to comply with the requirement even in the face of fines -- that some described as potentially in the millions of dollars -- or possible imprisonment.
Because Southern Baptists believe in a free church in a free state, "tens of thousands of us, maybe hundreds of thousands of us, would be very willing to spend nights in jail for the sake of the preservation of religious liberty," C. Ben Mitchell told the committee. "It's not just our coffers that are at risk. It is our very freedom."
Matthew Harrison, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, said, "Religious people determine what violates their consciences, not the federal government. ... We must obey God rather than men, and we will."
William Thierfelder, president of the Roman Catholic Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina, told panel members, "This is an issue worth dying for, and many have."
Both Mitchells cited the religious liberty contribution of Baptists to American freedom and the efforts of such Baptist leaders of other eras as Roger Williams, John Leland and Isaac Backus.
Craig Mitchell told the committee, "The thing that concerns me is that if [administration officials] don't see this as a religious liberty issue, what do they see as a religious liberty issue? And where do they stop? What I see here is a hollowing out of what the concept of religious liberty is almost to the point of eventually it will be nonexistent."
The committee's Democrats, who are in the minority, protested the failure of the first panel of five witnesses to include a woman. The second panel included two women among five witnesses. Many focused on women's access to contraceptives, and some defended the president's announced change.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D.-N.Y., asked, "Where are the women?" Rep. Gerry Connolly, D.-Va., decried the hearing as a "sham."
Rep. James Lankford -- a Southwestern Seminary graduate along with both Mitchells –- was one of the Republican committee members who denied the hearing was about access to contraceptives or women's rights.
The Oklahoma congressman said, "Today, this hearing is about: Can this administration, or any administration, say, 'I know your doctrine, but I have a different doctrine, and you will change your doctrine to my doctrine or I will fine you?'"
C. Ben Mitchell also is a consultant on biomedical and life issues for the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Craig Mitchell also is director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Seminary. ETBU, which is located in Marshall, is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
Archived video of the hearing is available at http://1.usa.gov/wr2AZg
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.