Good news: Obama backs exemptions for religious organizations

posted at 11:35 am on February 15, 2012 by Ed Morrissey

Admit it — you thought that the Obama administration had some sort of latent hostility toward religious organizations.  His new HHS mandate refused to exempt such charities, schools, and hospitals from employer mandates to cover contraception and abortifacients, ruling that they were exactly like all other employers in the eyes of the government.  Well, have I got news for you!  Obama does indeed recognize that religious organizations should be treated differently … when it comes time for student-loan forgiveness (via The Anchoress):

Although not known to most people, the federal government maintains a program called Public Service Loan Forgiveness. According to that program, after ten years of public service work, any remaining federal student loans remaining for that worker would be forgiven. But what counts as public service?

Until the end of January, the government definition was clear and inclusive. It read as follows:

“Qualifying employment is any employment with a federal, state, or local government agency, entity, or organization or a non-profit organization that has been designated as tax-exempt by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC). The type or nature of employment with the organization does not matter for PSLF purposes. Additionally, the type of services that these public service organizations provide does not matter for PSLF purposes.”

Now though, the rules have changed. At the end of the description of who qualifies for this program, a new paragraph appears and it’s striking not only in that it re-defines things, but that it does so in a way that seems purposefully disingenuous.

“Generally, the type or nature of employment with the organization does not matter for PSLF purposes. However, if you work for a non-profit organization, your employment will not qualify for PSLF if your job duties are related to religious instruction, worship services, or any form of proselytizing.”

So after telling us that pretty much everything qualifies, even going out of its way to highlight that neither the type of work nor nature of the organizations matters, the government slips in the fact that if faith or worship are part of your work, you don’t qualify. What?!

Note too that this change took place at the same time that the White House finalized its ruling on the HHS mandate.  Religious schools and universities — which certainly give religious instruction — are just like any other employer when it comes to dictating values, but not when it comes to accessing a federal loan forgiveness program?  Even aside from the argument over whether such a program should exist at all (it shouldn’t), this is a steaming pile of hypocrisy after the demand that these same religious organizations have no real claim to be exercising their religious beliefs on the basis of them employing people outside of churches and other places of worship.

So which is it?  Do employees of religious schools and other organizations get to make claims on employers that violate the tenets of the organization’s faith, but not on government on the basis of that same faith?

Update: I’ve had a couple of e-mails from readers who sent the link to the statutory language for the PSLF, which doesn’t indicate any changes to the law itself since October 2009 (not 2008, as one of them wrote), although there is no indication what changed at that time.  However, the administration’s PSLF fact page did in fact change on January 31, 2012, with the addition of that restriction on eligibility.  Someone wanted to make sure that people working at religious organizations knew they don’t qualify for PSLF at about the same time the White House announced the HHS mandate, and the message is pretty clear that they intend to enforce that restriction.  Either way, the fact remains that this administration is treating religious exemptions very differently based on their preferred outcomes.


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