By Stephen J. Nielsen
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Experts locked horns Thursday over whether certain employers should be exempt from new required contraception insurance because of their religious convictions.
Controversy over birth-control insurance coverage has surfaced since passage of the federal Affordable Care Act. According to the First Freedom Center, more than 40 civil suits have been filed over the issue.
The center organized a debate at the Omni Richmond Hotel over whether it’s legal for the government to order contraception coverage – and whether it’s legal for businesses to refuse to comply.
“This is almost certain to come before the Supreme Court this year,” said Randy Bell, president of the First Freedom Center, a Richmond-based nonprofit devoted to freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. “The object is to bring these legal points forward.”
In his opening argument, Kevin Walsh, an associate professor of law at the University of Richmond, cited the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It says, in Walsh’s words, that “the government shall not substantially burden anyone’s exercise of religion, unless it advances a non-government interest and is restricted in the means that it accomplishes that.”
What constitutes a “substantial burden” was brought up several times in the debate, but a clear definition was never presented. The burden on corporate leaders could be quite high, Walsh said.
“Questions of cooperation with evil are some of the most difficult questions in all of theology,” Walsh said. He said that while compromises can be made for the sake of a business, this doesn’t lessen the burden on the religious person making the decision.
Walsh said the number of organizations exempted from the contraceptive requirement shows that the issue isn’t a priority. “If the government had a compelling interest, they would make it across the board.”
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, presented the other side of the debate. He argued that contraception insurance coverage was an issue of equality for women. Lynn said many women pay thousands of dollars a year for birth control.
“It’s discriminatory, in my judgment, to hire a woman, for example, to teach physics at a Catholic university and then tell her that she will be denied certain medical benefits,” he said.
Lynn said it’s a slippery slope to let businesses with religious ties dictate which parts of a health plan are acceptable. In that same vein, businesses tied to the Jehovah’s Witnesses could refuse to cover surgery because of the loss of blood, Scientologists could refuse to cover psychological needs and businesses affiliated with Christian Scientists could refuse to cover any kind of medical attention, Lynn said.
“If you open this door, you destroy the possibility of any kind of public or private comprehensive health care system,” he said.
Thursday’s debate was the second in a series of events about freedom of religion, public policy and law. The First Freedom Center is hosting the series with Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Medicine, the University of Richmond School of Law and Bon Secours Richmond Health System, with the support of the Charl Ormond Williams Foundation.
Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University.