Yesterday, the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Health held a hearing asking the question, “Do New Health Law Mandates Threaten Conscience Rights and Access to Care?” Many of the panelists responded with a resounding “yes.”

Fulfilling a broader requirement of Obamacare that dictates mandatory coverage of certain “preventative services,” the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released an interim final rule in August that requires nearly all insurance companies to cover contraception, sterilization, and education and counseling regarding such services—without cost to the insured. The rule includes mandatory coverage of ethically controversial drugs like ella, which can abort an early pregnancy.

Employers with moral and ethical objections to covering such services will find little relief in the mandate’s religious exemption. The narrowly drawn exemption is available only for entities whose primary mission is to inculcate religious belief and who hire and serve co-religionists. In their comments on the rule, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops quipped that under such an extraordinarily limited definition of a religious employer, “even the ministry of Jesus and the early Christian Church would not qualify as ‘religious.’”

Jane Belford, chancellor and general counsel for the Archdiocese of Washington, explained:

HHS has drafted a religious exemption that is so narrow that it excludes virtually all Catholic hospitals, elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, and charitable organizations, none of which impose a litmus test on those they serve, as the HHS mandate would have them do.

Testimony and discussion at the hearing yesterday addressed this exceptional attack on the conscience rights of employers who will now be forced to choose between compromising their convictions and providing insurance coverage that violates deeply held beliefs.

As William Cox, president and CEO of the Alliance of Catholic Healthcare, pointed out, the mandate will force religious employers to “cooperate under governmental compulsion with conduct that is inconsistent with their religious and moral beliefs, or cease functioning altogether.”

That dire decision may just cause a decrease in access to care as employers are forced to forego providing coverage rather than disregard their beliefs. Cox warned that “these mandates will force providers and others of conscience to choose between violating their consciences or no longer providing or paying for health care and other services, and curtailing access to care, particularly for some of the most vulnerable among us.”

David Stevens, M.D., CEO of the Christian Medical Association, also suggested in written testimony that the “meaningless” religious exemption “can potentially cause a decrease in the provision of health insurance for employees of pro-life health care employers who want to avoid conflicts of conscience regarding the subsidy and implied endorsement of controversial contraceptives.”

The panelists suggested that the narrow policy may fly in the face of the appropriate relationship between government and private, faith-based employers. As Cox noted:

HHS’s definition of religious employer raises a fundamental question: may the government determine what parts of a bona fide religious organization are religious and what parts are secular? And, in particular, may the government make such distinctions in order to infringe the religious freedom of that portion of the organization the government declares to be secular?

Religiously affiliated organizations play an important role in advancing civil society through health care, education, and a host of social services. Policymakers should advance the cause of religious freedom—not only for religiously affiliated organization but all people of conscience—by ensuring that employers and individuals are able to provide and buy health insurance that accords with their deeply held beliefs.