Our nation has a long legacy of defending individuals’ religious freedoms. James Madison, the father of our nation’s Constitution and the author of the Bill of Rights, once wrote that “conscience is the most sacred of all property.” Since our nation’s earliest days, the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently affirmed our First Amendment right to exercise our religious beliefs freely. But today, recent decisions by the Obama administration are threatening Americans’ religious liberty.
This past summer, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) exercised its authority under the new health-care law to announce a rule that most employer-provided health insurance plans cover contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs. This new mandate contains a “religious employer” exception, but the exception is so narrow that many religiously affiliated hospitals, educational institutions, and charities do not meet the requirements. After releasing this rule for comment, HHS heard from hundreds of thousands of Americans who were opposed to the regulation and the narrow scope of its exception. However, despite the concerns of so many, HHS announced last month that it would not change the mandate for non-profit religious employers, but only extend to next year the deadline for them to comply.
Extending the deadline does not change what is at stake. Faith-based groups that object to this requirement on moral grounds are now being forced to choose between offering services that violate their religious beliefs or eliminating their employees’ health coverage. Targeting religious beliefs in this manner erodes the principle of religious liberty upon which our country was founded.
Last October, I joined many of my Senate colleagues in requesting that HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius reconsider this regulation and instead follow our nation’s tradition of respecting religious liberty. Additionally, in September I sponsored S. 1467, the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, legislation that would protect health-care providers and employers from being forced to pay for products and services under the new health care law that violate their ethical values.
Our federal government should not force religious groups to betray their fundamental beliefs. Current conscience protections permit some religious groups to abstain from participating in war or working on religious holy days, and others to be exempt from the health-care law’s individual mandate to purchase a certain level of health insurance as defined by the federal government. In the recently decided case Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church v. EEOC, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the government cannot interfere with “the internal governance of the church” in ministerial hiring decisions.
The threat to religious liberty caused by this unprecedented overreach by the federal government should be of concern for all Americans — whether or not they ascribe to a particular faith. What is most concerning is this: If the government can compel an individual or group to violate one’s “sacred” conscience, then there is no limit to government power. All of our cherished constitutional rights would be subject to the whims of the federal government and those in power. One group’s beliefs are being trampled today; another’s might be tomorrow. Our constitutional rights and freedoms are essential to who we are as Americans, and our commitment to these precious rights must be protected at every turn.
— Jerry Moran represents Kansas in the U.S. Senate.