Magazine article Church & State

The Trump Administration Targets Birth Control Availability-And Tries to Redefine Religious Freedom

Magazine article Church & State

The Trump Administration Targets Birth Control Availability-And Tries to Redefine Religious Freedom

Article excerpt

For advocates of religious freedom and separation of church and state, Oct. 6, 2017, will be remembered as the day the Donald Trump administration delivered a one-two punch.

In early October, rumors began circulating that administration officials were poised to issue new regulations regarding access to contraceptives. The regulations did indeed come and they were troubling. But that was just a start. Less than an hour later, the administration also issued a sweeping guidance intended to cover religious freedom issues, a directive critics at Americans United said is really just a cover for discrimination.

AU was quick to respond to both developments. The organization promptly announced it will challenge the birth control regulations in court, and blasted the religious freedom guidance as a reckless move likely to foster discrimination.

Here is more information about both developments:

Birth Control: The Affordable Care Act (ACA), sometimes called "Obama-care," contains a provision designed to ensure that women will have access to affordable and effective contraception. Since the vast majority of American women at some point in their lives use artificial forms of contraception, the guarantee was seen as an important step forward for women's health.

The ACA requires that most health insurance plans cover birth control, but there are some exceptions. Houses of worship, for example, are exempt from the mandate. In addition, the law contains a provision stating that nonprofits, certain corporations and universities that have religious objections to birth control may refuse to cover it in their employees' and students' health insurance plans if they put their objection in writing by filling out a short form. At that point, the government would arrange for a third party to pay for and provide the coverage.

This was seen as a reasonable accommodation by many, but, remarkably, some religious groups have challenged the opt-out in court, insisting that the mere act of requesting an exemption violates their religious freedom.

Those cases are ongoing, but thanks to the new Trump directives, the number of organizations that don't have to provide birth control could expand dramatically.

Under the new regulations, virtually any for-profit corporation, university or nonprofit institution can cite religious objections to deny insurance coverage for contraception to its employees and students.

In material accompanying the new regulations, the Trump administration admitted that some women will likely lose birth control coverage, but it blithely dismissed this concern.

"The government's legitimate interests in providing for contraceptive coverage do not require us to violate sincerely held religious beliefs," an administration official, speaking anonymously, told The New York Times. The source conceded that the administration does "not have sufficient data to determine the actual effect of these rules," including how many unintended pregnancies they might spark.

Americans United criticized the regulations as a step backward for women's rights and religious liberty.

"Religious freedom is about fairness --it does not give anyone the right to deny women access to birth control," said Maggie Garrett, Americans United's legislative director. "The Trump administration's regulations violate the First Amendment and are a huge step backward for women's health and equality."

Richard B. Katskee, AU's legal director, added, "Religion is no excuse for employers or universities to dictate their employees' or students' health care choices. Taking away access to contraception--a core part of women's health care--is discrimination, plain and simple."

Katskee said AU will join forces with the National Women's Law Center to challenge the Trump rules in court.

As Katskee told The Times, "Religious freedom is the right to believe and worship as you see fit. …

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