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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Religious Exemptions for Mandatory Health Care Programs: A Legal Analysis

Cynthia Brougher
Legislative Attorney

In March 2010, Congress enacted the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), which included a provision that requires certain individuals to have a minimum level of health insurance. Additionally, the threat of bioterrorism has caused some to consider the possibility of introducing vaccination programs to prevent an outbreak of serious illnesses. Programs like health care coverage and vaccinations have the potential to violate certain religious beliefs and therefore may conflict with the First Amendment. In the continuing debate over issues for which mandatory health care programs might be solutions, questions have been raised about the constitutional issues relating to exemptions for health care programs.

For the purposes of this report, mandatory health care programs are those which require individuals to take some action relating to a health care policy objective. A variety of mandatory health care programs currently exists at the federal and state levels. Some programs are medical programs that require individuals to participate in a medical program, while some programs are financial programs that require individuals to pay for program costs. For example, all 50 states and the District of Columbia require children to be vaccinated for certain illnesses and diseases before entering school. At the federal level, the tax system requires individuals to pay taxes that fund Medicare to provide health care to elderly citizens. In some instances, mandatory health care programs include exemptions that allow qualified persons to opt out of the required action. Specifically, religious exemptions have been provided in a variety of mandatory health care programs, including state immunization laws and Medicare taxes. These religious exemptions permit individuals who object to the program based on religious beliefs to avoid compromising those beliefs.

This report will discuss the legal issues that arise in the context of religious exemptions for mandatory health care programs. It will discuss constitutional and statutory provisions relating to religious protection and how such laws have been applied in the medical context. The report will also briefly address examples of health care programs that have included religious exemptions, including a discussion of the religious conscience exemption included in PPACA. It will analyze whether the U.S. Constitution requires religious exemptions for mandatory health care programs and whether, if not required, the Constitution allows religious exemptions for such programs.

Date of Report: February 23, 2011
Number of Pages: 13
Order Number: RL34708
Price: $29.95

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