Before the House repealed ObamaCare once more last week, another bill was introduced to stop the Department of Health and Human Services from charging religious institutions steep fines for noncompliance with the mandate to provide birth control without an insurance co-payment.
Under President Obama’s healthcare law, the HHS can levy $100 per employee, per day against institutions that won’t comply with the mandate.
Therefore, religious employers with hundreds of employees could be fined millions of dollars each year. A 50-employee institution, for example, would face a penalty of $1,825,000 each year.
“ObamaCare gives the federal government the tools to tax religiously affiliated schools, hospitals, universities and soup kitchens right out of existence,” said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), sponsor of the Religious Freedom Tax Repeal Act.
Using the language that the Supreme Court recently decided covered the penalties in ObamaCare, Sensenbrenner cites a February report by the Congressional Research Service that adds up the noncompliance tax to $36,500 annually per employee. Any group health plan and health insurance issuer subject to insurance market reforms in Title I of the Affordable Care Act that objects to coverage requirements based on religious and moral convictions does not qualify for an exemption.
The Religious Freedom Tax Repeal Act would exempt such employers from any excise tax and certain lawsuits and penalties for refusing to provide objectionable coverage.
The bill has 67 co-sponsors, including House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Republican Study Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas), and Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.).
Another co-sponsor who was standing with Sensenbrenner at the press conference announcing the bill’s introduction was Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), whose Respect for Rights of Conscience Act to strike down the mandate was brought to the Senate floor by Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) as an amendment to a highway bill.
The Blunt amendment failed 51-48.
Sensenbrenner told PJM on Friday that he thought that was a “premature” way to battle the mandate.
“I’ve said very plainly to all of the participants — they need to build some kind of a grass-roots support for this kind of legislation in order to get the kind of vote we need to impress upon the administration that they’re wrong on this issue,” the Wisconsin Republican said.
He added that though he hears some criticism from conservative Catholics who want to stop at nothing less than full repeal, “Well, we can’t do that now.”
Fortenberry, said Sensenbrenner, “recognizes where we’re at on this.”
The introduction of the bill during ObamaCare repeal week was “not that coincidental,” Sensenbrenner said. When asked if the goal of the fine was to put religious employers out of business, he said, “I don’t know if the goal is, but that’s what the effect is.”
The congressman notes that he’s not Catholic, but even in his home state there are Lutheran institutions that would fall under the penalty if they chose not to provide certain services.
“Any religious institution that does any outreach whatsoever is going to fall under this tax unless they knuckle under to the Sebelius mandate,” he said.
“The wall between church and state ought to go both ways,” he added.
Sensenbrenner said he hasn’t gotten any reaction from the administration to his bill, and hopes that if it emerges from committee and clears the House it could eke out a majority in the Senate.
Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), and Bob Casey (D-Pa.) all voted for the Blunt amendment. Retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) has also talked about the value of religion in life, and could conceivably vote against the fines even if he didn’t vote against striking down the mandate.
Minority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said before the ObamaCare repeal vote that he wanted to get members on the record about the law; in the name of religious freedom, Sensenbrenner would like to do the same.
“If somebody votes against this bill I don’t know how they go home and campaign. That isn’t going to win very many votes,” he said. “It’s the principle of religious liberty.”
While there is solid conservative backing in Congress to end these harsh penalties against religious institutions, Sensenbrenner said a groundswell is going to be needed in the form of “very vocal support of the religious community” to get a bill such as his to Obama’s desk or otherwise force a repeal of the fines.
“They are the people who are hurt the most as the religious community, and they’re going to have to step up to the plate and say this is not fair,” Sensenbrenner said.
It’s like, he said, when Southern Baptist preacher and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, outraged over the mandate, got in front of CPAC and said, “Thanks to President Obama, we are all Catholics now.”
Sensenbrenner said his bill protects employers from “Obamacare’s Catch-22.”
“Our religious liberties are not bartering chips,” he said. “Let’s not treat them that way.”