The federal government is supposed to remain neutral in matters of faith, taking sides neither for nor against any religion. President Trump took a good step back to that ideal with his revised contraception mandate.
There are common-sense limits, of course. One cannot claim a right to practice cannibalism or human sacrifice with an argument that one's conscience requires it. But Congress has created appropriate criteria to guide courts on this matter, and they have produced a coherent body of jurisprudence on what constitutes a true infringement on religious liberty.
Still, the rule of thumb is that government tries to keep out of everyone's way on the issue of religious belief and practice. One way to do this is to carve out religious exemptions. A cleaner way is to avoid making rules which create a need for such carve-outs.
Among his many constitutional predations, former President Barack Obama, in the birth control mandate of his healthcare reform, aggressively sided against the religious beliefs of many business owners and nonprofit operators, requiring them to do what their religion taught would make them complicit in evil. This never had to happen, and it is a relief now to see the Trump administration working to make it easier for employers to provide insurance for their employees without violating their consciences under penalty of law.
The mandate, which coerces employers to pay the full cost for all forms of contraception and some abortifacients in any health coverage for employees, was never essential to Obamacare's goal of universal insurance. It isn't even part of the Affordable Care Act passed by Congress.
Rather, more than a year after Obamacare became law, the 44th president's Department of Health and Human Services issued this requirement as a regulation. The mandate bans employers from providing health care coverage to employees unless they also provide free contraception. Penalties for transgressors are enormous and punitive, up to $100 a day per employee, and can run into millions of dollars a year for any medium-sized business.
This rule, unnecessary to achieve coverage goals, has been challenged in court because it rides roughshod over the freedom of Christians and others to practice their religion and act according to its teachings.
Religious organizations and religion-affiliated institutions, such as Catholic universities and hospitals, had to fight Obama tooth and nail to win special exceptions. So did businesses with a religious ethos, such as Hobby Lobby. Freedom of conscience has still not won complete victory. The Little Sisters of the Poor, for example, remain mired in litigation over their right to operate according to their founding spirit.
Trump's new draft rule would relax the mandate so any business that requested an exemption would get one, and religious organizations would not even have to notify the government. Most businesses will not seek an exemption, but some will. This is as it should be because it should usually be up to businesses and not government to shape employee benefits packages. The new rule is a robust reassertion of the freedom to set reasonable terms of employment without government micromanagement.
There are no well-founded concerns about this move, much though hysterical reactions among left-liberals suggest otherwise. Contraception is inexpensive and widely available, and it will remain so regardless of this new rule. If employers' health plans do not cover birth control, their staff can make their own decisions about contraception, just as they decide for themselves whether to buy a bottle of aspirin.
The federal government will go back to its proper neutrality, no longer imposing unconstitutional burdens on the exercise of religion. People who want contraception will be able to buy it, and Uncle Sam will stop extorting payments for such medicines from people who don't want to be complicit in what they believe to be wrong.