New rules grant conscience win over abortion mandate

By Tom Strode

Published: October 17, 2017

WASHINGTON—The Trump administration delivered a major victory for freedom of conscience Oct. 6 by issuing new rules to protect objectors to the abortion/contraception mandate instituted under President Obama.

One of the two companion rules announced exempts entities from the requirement based on their religious beliefs, while the other regulation protects organizations and small businesses on the basis of a moral conviction apart from a specific religious belief, according to a news release from the Department of Health and Human Services.

The win for objectors comes after a six-year battle against an HHS mandate that requires employers to provide their workers with coverage for contraceptives, including those with mechanisms that can potentially induce abortions. The 2011 rule, which helped implement the controversial health-care law enacted the previous year, resulted in legal challenges from more than 90 religious nonprofits, including GuideStone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention and four Baptist universities.

Southern Baptist and other religious freedom advocates praised the new rules.

Ethicist Russell Moore expressed his gratitude and described the action as “a crucial achievement in the preservation of religious liberty.”

“The government has no business whatsoever forcing citizens to subsidize the destruction of human life and the exploitation of families and communities,” said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in a written release. “More still, the contraceptive mandate revealed the audacity of a state that believed it could annex the human conscience, which is why I have long opposed it as an unlawful overreach asking citizens to choose between obedience to God and compliance with the regulatory state. A government that can pave over the consciences of some can steamroll over dissent everywhere.”

Frank Page, president of the SBC Executive Committee, said in a written statement for Baptist Press he continues to be grateful to the president “for his stance regarding religious liberty. For a country which treasures freedom of speech and freedom of conscience, it is good to finally have a president who will actually stand up for these principles and do more than give lip service. Thank you, Mr. President!”

GuideStone welcomed the new rules, while acknowledging it awaits a final, positive judgment in court that hopefully will be supported by the government.

GuideStone President O.S. Hawkins said in a written release, “We are grateful to God, first and foremost, for this outcome. This has been a matter of continued prayer as we petitioned the throne of grace and the seat of government for redress of our grievances. Today is indeed a good day as we give thanks for the outcome we believe honors the Lord.”

Hawkins also described it as “good news for all Americans who value the important role of religious liberty in our nation.”

Harold Loftin, GuideStone’s general counsel, said the action “validates the claims asserted in our lawsuit. The interim final rule published today in essence acknowledges that the government violated the law in proposing the original (mandate).”

The issuance of what are described as “interim final” rules came five months after an executive order from President Trump directed the secretaries of three federal departments to consider revising rules to protect the religious freedom of the mandate’s objectors. Trump issued his executive order—which also addressed other religious freedom issues—on National Day of Prayer, May 4, in a ceremony at the White House Rose Garden.

In its release, HHS said the new rules will have no effect on government programs that offer free or subsidized contraceptive coverage to low-income women. The rules will not impact more than 99.9 percent of American women, it said. (BP)