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Column: The Health Benefits in Your Pay Package Matter

Washington

Should the federal government force the group Priests for Life, or any other group for that matter, to pay for contraceptives? Supporters of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s requirement say “yes.” They argue Priests for Life, a pro-life group, isn’t religious.

Supporters claim that when religious people go to work, they stop being religious. They also claim employers who don’t offer contraception coverage are “meddling” in their employees’ lives. The opposite is true. By paying employees in money, not in benefits the employee can’t even choose, employers are staying out of their employees’ private lives.

Supporters also argue that employers don’t have the right to deny employees access to contraceptives. That’s true but irrelevant. Employers who do not pay for employees’ contraception are not denying access to those items any more than they are denying access to food by not buying their employees groceries.

Employees like cash compensation and for good reason: They can decide for themselves what to buy. It might be contraception; it might be gas for the car.

It’s called freedom, and the government will be taking some away if it succeeds in forcing employers to convert some of your pay to specific health-care services you might not even want.

Some people mistakenly think the requirement gives employees free services. Not true! Employers pay their employees based on market value. If the government forces employers to pay some of that compensation in contraception coverage, employers likely will deduct that amount from the cash pay.

Employees who get health insurance at work aren’t getting it free. They’re taking some of their pay in health insurance. And that’s OK. No one is going to court to oppose that.

It’s when the federal government tries to force certain benefit packages on employees that problems arise. The problems of restricting freedom and harming people — some employees need the cash! — are a legal problem.

In 1993, Democrats, Republicans and then-President Bill Clinton got together and overwhelmingly passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Under RFRA, the federal government can force people, including business owners, to violate their religious beliefs only if the government has a “compelling interest” to do so. Under RFRA, the government must prove the mandate is necessary to protect basic constitutional rights even though the mandate violates the Constitution’s First Amendment protection of freedom of religion.

The government also has to prove the requirement is the “least restrictive” way it can accomplish its goal of making certain employed people have access to contraceptives.

That will be hard because the public already has access to contraception. It is legal, widely available and inexpensive. Birth control can be had for $15 or less a month.

The requirement is unfair, unconstitutional and unnecessary. It’s also unpopular. A November Rassmussen poll found the public opposed 51 percent to 38 percent.

Substantial numbers of the Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Mormon, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Baha’i and Zoroastrian faiths oppose it. The courts are filled with legal challenges from charities, colleges, convents, ministries, a TV network, businesses, individuals and even states. Rulings have been made on the merits in 46 cases so far, with opponents winning 39.

The Supreme Court will toss the mandate out. The Obama administration should withdraw it now.

Amy Ridenour is chairman of the conservative National Center for Public Policy Research.