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Obama and the contraception mandate

The Obama administration plans to exempt only certain types of religious institutions from the health-care law's mandate for coverage of birth control. But in doing so, it redefines religion, which not only steps on a basic liberty but a basic understanding of religion's role in society.

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President Obama, accompanied by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, announces the revamp of his contraception policy requiring religious institutions to fully pay for birth control, Feb. 10.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

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In 1984 when he was fresh out of school, Barack Obama was hired through a group of Chicago churches to be a community activist for the poor. It is difficult to know if he ever saw his charity work as religious in nature. Yet as president, he now faces a legal challenge over that very type of question.

On Monday, more than a dozen lawsuits were filed by Catholic institutions to overturn a decision by Mr. Obama that exempts only certain types of religious groups from a health-care mandate but also ends up narrowly defining what is a religious organization and religious activity.

His administration’s decision – as part of the new health-care law – is aimed at imposing a mandate on religiously affiliated institutions, such as Christian charities, schools, and hospitals, to carry health insurance that covers the cost of birth control for any worker in those institutions.

The lawsuits are supported by a large number of Christian groups as well as a few Jewish leaders. Yet the suits do more than simply object to the government trying to define religion, a dubious affront to religious liberty that the courts have long warned against. These groups also decry the Obama administration’s notion that religion is primarily a matter of belief and does not necessarily include activity to help and heal others based on one’s spiritual convictions.

The issue of whether a woman should have access to birth control is not really at stake in these lawsuits. There are other ways for government to provide such access, such as expanding Medicaid. And church-run organizations, many of which self-insure, need not be required to pay insurance premiums that end up subsidizing birth control in violation of their beliefs.

Rather, the more critical issue is Obama’s reasoning in his decision on which types of faith-based groups can be excluded from the birth-control mandate.

The US Department of Health and Human Services has decided to exempt only those religious groups whose primary purpose is the “inculcation” of religious values and who primarily serve their own members.

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