Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Affordable Healthcare Act and Religious Exemption

The Affordable Healthcare for America Act, enacted in 2009 under the Barack Obama administration seeks to provide fair and comprehensive healthcare to all Americans. One of the provisions in the bill is that businesses must include coverage for contraception, abortion, sterilization, and abortifacients in the healthcare packages they offer to their employees. However, the Catholic Church and other religious groups are fundamentally opposed to these practices and have spoken out against the bill. Thus the debate begins over whether or not these groups are allowed to exempt themselves from providing coverage for what they see as an affront to their religious practices and free exercise thereof.

On September 4th, Catholic based Barron Industries filed a lawsuit against Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius alleging that the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage mandate violates their first amendment rights. More specifically, the plaintiffs find contraception use, abortion, and sterilization fundamentally immoral and wish to exclude said practices from the healthcare packages they offer to their employees.

Founded in 1923, Barron Industries is a fabrication and assembly plant located in Oxford Michigan, employing 56 full-time employees. Family values and a devout catholic foundation are core values practiced by both the machining plants owners, Paul and Bruce Barron, but also instilled in the plants workers. The company performs a catholic mass in their conference room regularly, and their workers are all strongly encouraged to attend. Their website goes on to state: “Our Guiding Principle is our faith in God… It is our collective goal to use our work, professional and personal lives to lead each other to eternal salvation”. The company feels as though the contraception mandate encroaches on these values. Additionally the company supports a multitude of catholic and pro-life organizations, further cementing the veracity of their Christian background.

The plaintiffs argue that the affordable care act is not neutral, as it exempts certain groups, both religious and secular, from offering contraceptive practices, but not others. Because Barron Industries is a business, they fall into the latter category. However, since their business practices are steeped in a religious foundation, they too believe they should qualify for an exemption. This creates the question of what constitutes a religious group? Since Barron Industries is 100% privately owned they hold the right to be religiously based. Yet, does that give them the right to tailor their employees’ healthcare packages to their beliefs? 

I think not. On June 28th, the Department of Health and Human Services (HSS) stated that the exemption is limited to religious and non-profit organizations, but not businesses.  Although religiously based, Barron Industries must operate as an equal opportunity employer and therefore must accommodate non-Catholic employees who may see the exemption as a violation of their own 1st amendment rights. Ultimately I think that if Barron Industries, as a business, receives an exemption they would be discriminating against their current and future employees, whether or not they were practicing Christians. A business must act, in my eyes, as a neutral entity. Religious non-profits and churches involve a group of like-minded individuals coming together for a unified purpose. Being a machinist and a devout catholic are not necessarily mutually inclusive and Barron Industries should provide contraception coverage regardless. Furthermore, just because they are offering the coverage does not mean that their employees have to take advantage of it. Thus I feel that it is a moot point when arguing that this provision itself infringes on the free exercise of their religion or that it causes significant harm to any one party. 

In a similar case, the Catholic Health Association (CHA) was at odds with the HHS over having to extend birth control to its employees. As of July however, the CHA has reversed its position and no longer opposes the mandate. Moreover, additional cases such as this have continually challenged the mandate and the debate over its constitutionality does not appear to end any time soon.  What defines a religious group? Does Barron Industries deserve an exemption?

A link to the lawsuit in full can be found here.


Sayeh B said...

I do not believe Barron Industries deserves an exemption with regards to this health care package. My first issue with this is that this company, which serves a secular purpose, has to have such a strong religious association. It doesn't make sense to me personally that secular/standard services are so heavily associated with religion. There is no room for your personal religious beliefs in the business/professional/public realm. As for this case specifically, I don't think that including contraceptives, abortion information, etc. is infringing on the business' First Amendment rights. The business owners are assuming that all of their employees are as intensely Catholic as they are themselves. But in the case that their employees are not, the denial of these parts of the healthcare package would infringe upon their rights. Overall, I agree with Benjamin that this business does not deserve an exemption: Barron Industries performs a secular job and allowing the owners' to exclude certain parts of the package based on their religion would ultimately open up a can of worms (fallen off the slippery slope) and would discriminate against their non-religious employees as well.

Jennie M. said...

I agree that Barron Industries must offer the same health care package that other businesses are required to under the Affordable Care Act. As the poster states, an exemption might be warranted if they were a non-profit group. But because of their status as a business, they must adhere to the law in this case and offer full coverage.

Refusing coverage for certain procedures and medicine for their employees violates the employees' rights. I don't necessarily think giving Barron Industries an exemption would cause a slippery slope situation, but I do think each employee deserves the right to decide what is best for them and their health. Even though the company promotes Catholic values, those views can be expressed and acted on in different ways by different people. Coverage for abortions and contraceptives may never actually be utilized, but the employees deserve the right to decide for themselves.

Maddie C. said...

I don’t think Barron Industries should qualify for an exemption from the affordable care act. I agree with Jennie that they must understand that the exemption would ultimately affect the employees. It was stated that the owners and all the workers are devout Catholics, but just because the owners’ beliefs are strongly in opposition to contraceptive practices does not mean all the other workers feel the same way. The owners themselves are not forced to use the coverage for contraceptives and should let their employees have the opportunity to use it if they so choose. In addition, I believe that this choice ultimately makes the act neutral for religions and non-religion in the secular realm of the general workforce.

Dylan Smith said...

I think I disagree with what has been said so far. One question I have though is in regards to the statement that the business is private. How does this separate them from public business and is the affordable care act any different for private businesses than public businesses. If they have the right to be religiously affiliated than why don't they have the right to religious exemption from a certain type of health care inclusion? The employees don't need to work there either if they aren't receiving the desired health. If the business is hurt, it is its own fault but it should have the ability to make that decision.