Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014

House votes to broaden religious exemptions within 'Obamacare'

Compiled by Mark A. Kellner, Deseret News National Edition

Published: Sat, March 15 8:15 a.m. MDT

 FILE - This Friday, Dec. 28, 2012, file photo shows the Capitol dome on Capitol Hill in Washington. A bill to widen a religious exemption for those not wanting to buy health insurance on religious grounds won approval in the U.S. House on a voice vote this week. It now goes to the Senate for approval.

FILE - This Friday, Dec. 28, 2012, file photo shows the Capitol dome on Capitol Hill in Washington. A bill to widen a religious exemption for those not wanting to buy health insurance on religious grounds won approval in the U.S. House on a voice vote this week. It now goes to the Senate for approval.

(Susan Walsh, Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — While employers are going to court seeking protections on religious grounds against the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate, another group of believers is on its way to securing total exemption from the health-insurance requirement of the ACA.

The Hill newspaper, which covers congressional actions, reported that a "fix it" bill, the Equitable Access to Care and Health Act, passed on a voice vote March 11. The measure has been received by the Senate, where committee action there would be the next step, though not one that is guaranteed.

While the original ACA bill chiefly exempted members of some Amish and Mennonite communities who also are excused, on moral grounds, from paying Social Security and Medicare taxes, other people faced difficulties. Followers of Christian Science, many of whom eschew medicine in favor of prayer and Bible study, are required to buy health insurance under health care reform even though many of its services would not be used by Christian Scientists.

Enter Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., a Baptist and a member of the House Ways and Means Committee. In April 2013, he proposed the EACH Act, which was co-sponsored by 225 members of the House, including Utah Rep. Rob Bishop and Rep. Chris Stewart, both Republicans, and Rep. Jim Matheson, a Democrat.

Speaking on the House floor before the bill passed, Schock said, "In order to qualify for the exemption under the EACH Act, an individual must affirm on an annual tax return that he or she cannot purchase coverage due to a 'sincerely held religious belief.' This term, as defined by the U.S. (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) and widely recognized by the courts, is designed to protect various types of religious believers, not just those who belong to a traditional, organized religion."

But it was members of one organized religion in particular, Christian Science, that were under threat here. Rep. Bill Keating, a Democrat from Massachusetts, explained during the House debate of the bill that such an exemption exists under his state's universal health care law.

"With the passage of the Affordable Care Act, Donna (Smiley, a Christian Scientist from Centerville) would no longer be able to take advantage of the Massachusetts religious conscience exemption and would be penalized by the federal government for not having insurance," he said, according to Capitolwords.org. "The EACH Act, modeled after the process that has been in place in Massachusetts for the past seven years, would ensure that a fair solution is reached so that Donna and other Americans are not penalized for their religious beliefs next year."

And as Keating noted, such exemptions for believers are not unusual. Along with that Massachusetts exemption, Christian Scientists for years have been allowed to deduct payments for Christian Science practitioner and nursing care from their federal taxable income and those using such treatments can also apply pre-tax dollars from Health Savings Accounts to their cost.

Not everyone in Congress is happy with the exemption. Some members, including Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., according to The Wall Street Journal, "said they opposed the measure because it was too broad and potentially would allow anyone to claim a religious exemption." And the secularist Center for Inquiry public policy arm warned followers "this bill does not aim to protect freedom of religion; it aims to place religion on a pedestal, allowing believers to disobey a law that everyone else must follow."

There is another means by which those with moral concerns about the ACA's provisions can avoid penalties and have health coverage: faith-based coops where members vow to pay each other's bills.

Fox News Channel reports that organizations, such as Medi-Share, a part of the Christian Care Ministry, are enrolling thousands of people. Criteria include "agree(ing) to live so-called biblical lifestyles — meaning regular church attendance; no drugs, tobacco, or sex outside of marriage; and limited alcohol consumption." Critics, however, allege that since there's no commitment or requirement for such coops to pay bills, members could be left with large debts, something supporters and members say hasn't happened.

Email: mkellner@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @Mark_Kellner

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1. Mountanman
Hayden, ID,
March 15, 2014

I am glad to see the House doing something to protect religious liberties but the Senate will not, and even if the Senate voted for this measure, Obama would veto it, period! The Democrats are determined to control everything because they really think they know what's best for you, even your religion!

2. MissTeaching
Layton, UT,
March 15, 2014

Well, as America has, unfortunately, become so secular, I don't see why they shouldn't pass this exemption. Sad statement on the condition of this country.

3. Gildas
LOGAN, UT,
March 16, 2014

I look forward to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints going to bat for us on this one. I would like to claim the exception as I do not want to support contraception or abortion.

4. John Pack Lambert of Michigan
Ypsilanti, MI,
March 16, 2014

This is a great law, and I am shocked that the Christian Scientists were not exempted under the original law. It shows how poorly written that law was, and may also show how much it was ram-rodded through without proper thought.

5. The Authority
Richfield, UT,
March 19, 2014

My only question is why contraception?
It's relatively cheap, easy to find and many forms of it don't require a prescription. Why would it be the one mandating thing in this wallet sucking beast we call Obamacare?
Why not heart medication, cancer treatment or something else that is life or death?