Politics & Policy

Congress Must Protect Religious Liberty Now More than Ever

As progressive states and the Obama administration crack down on vital conscience protections, it’s time to fight back.

Since the Supreme Court ruled for the plaintiffs in Roe v. Wade, both federal and state governments have introduced a series of laws protecting religious individuals from having to participate in abortion if it violates their consciences.

Federal laws such as the Hyde Amendment have traditionally been put in place in order to allow people with religious objections to opt out of practices they believe to be immoral. State laws modeled on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) give citizens the grounds to challenge laws that might infringe upon their exercise of religion, including in the realm of conscience violations. Meanwhile, there are three federal laws designed specifically to give conscience protections to members of the health-care industry: the Church Amendment, the Weldon Amendment, and the Coats-Snowe Amendment.

Some states, however, have gone the other way, and crafted legislation that circumscribes the conscience protections theoretically offered at both the federal and state level. And because the Obama administration has refused to enforce the Weldon Amendment against states such as California, these state laws have placed an undue burden on health-care professionals who have religious objections to abortion.

For instance, an Illinois bill signed into law last week enacts changes to the state’s Health Care Right of Conscience Act, forcing all health-care providers to take actions amounting to participation in abortion. The bill stipulates that, if medical providers of any kind refuse to perform an abortion or prescribe birth control, they then must choose from one of three options: refer the patient to another provider, transfer them to another provider, or provide a list of other health-care providers that offer the requested service. The law also requires medical professionals to counsel patients on the “benefits” of abortion.

In California, the Reproductive FACT Act requires all pregnancy centers to tell clients that the state offers public programs providing free or low-cost abortions, and to give out the phone number for a county office where the client could receive an abortion covered by Medi-Cal.

RELATED: California’s Culture War against Religious Liberty

Beyond such laws, there are other potential violations that take place at the state level. Taxpayer-funded abortion currently occurs in 17 states. Some states strictly regulate pregnancy-resource centers that do not provide abortions, requiring them to post signs that effectively dissuade clients from using their services or encourage them to receive counsel from professionals who would recommend abortion. The consciences of employers are often unduly burdened when they are required to cover abortions, emergency contraception (which functions as an abortifacient drug), and contraception in their health plans. And there are a number of cases pending in which health-care professionals were not hired or had their employment terminated because of their unwillingness to perform abortions.

#share#In light of the recent attacks on health-care workers’ conscience rights perpetrated by the Illinois and California state governments — as well as the ongoing threats to religious liberty posed by insurance regulations and taxpayer funding for abortion — the federal Conscience Protection Act (CPA), which would both enforce and strengthen the existing protections of the Hyde and Weldon amendments, has become even more vital. The CPA passed the House on July 13 and is currently awaiting President Obama’s signature, but he is not expected to sign it into law.

In a statement the day before the House approved the bill, which was passed in the form of an amendment to a whistleblower-protection act already passed by the Senate, the Obama administration strongly opposed the conscience protection amendment in a statement . . . 

 . . . because it would have the consequence of limiting women’s health care choices and because the Administration believes that protections in current Federal law already provide appropriate protection for the rights of conscience.

The statement concluded that senior administration officials would recommend that the president veto the bill if it passed Congress.

#related#Though religious-liberty groups will continue to challenge conscience-violating legislation in states such as Illinois and California, it is essential that the federal government ensures that such coercion comes to an end. Republican leaders in Congress should stand their ground on this issue until President Obama agrees to protect the essential conscience rights that are guaranteed by law and by nature to all of America’s religious citizens.

— Alexandra DeSanctis is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.

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