The Corner

Is Sister Jane Marie Religious Enough for You?

“We need legal protection. We need your help to continue this ministry,” Sister Jane Marie Klein said at a press conference marking the introduction of the Health Care Conscience Rights Act on Capitol Hill Tuesday.

Her ministry, as she explained it, is “to continue the work of Christ and his healing ministry in this very needy world today.”

It was a sober but alarming press conference — a nun pleading with Congress for religious-liberty protection would be the latter — focused on long-term solutions to a problem the Obama administration has insisted on creating.

Sister Jane Marie chairs the board of the Franciscan Alliance, which runs 13 hospitals, as well as clinics and other health-care services in Indiana and Illinois. The Franciscan Alliance, along with the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, is suing the Department of Health and Human Services over the abortion-drug, contraception, sterilization mandate.

“To say that we are somehow not religious enough to have a right to provide health care in accord with our faith, we find ignorant and demeaning,” Sr. Jane Marie, from the Order of St. Francis, said. She warned that “efforts to push faith-based health services out of the modern health world will hurt many patients most in need of loving care” as well as put people out of jobs.

She shared that 130 years ago, her order of women religious came to the United States from Germany because a bishop in Indiana invited them but also because of restrictions that the government in Germany had begun to place on their work.

“We have come together to act to protect Americans’ most basic rights — our rights of conscience and religious freedom. The bill simply restores the basic rights in health care that were widely accepted before the implementation of the new health-care law,” said Nebraska congressman Jeff Fortenberry, who has been a longtime advocate of conscience protections. We used to have a bipartisan consensus on those protections, from Ted Kennedy to Hillary Clinton. Even President Obama promised to protect conscience rights when he spoke at the University of Notre Dame.#more#

“It’s the government’s role to protect natural rights, not take them away,” Fortenberry said. He was joined by fellow congressmen Diane Black of Tennessee and Doctor John Fleming of Louisiana.

The HHS mandate includes “provisions that strike at the heart of our religious belief,” said Christine Ketterhagen, co-owner of Hercules Industries, one of the businesses suing HHS over the mandate. Her family strives, she said, to live those beliefs “seven days a week.”

“We ask for your support in protecting our religious freedom,” Ketterhagen said.

“I have had nightmares about babies crying in the dark,” Cathy Cenzon-DeCarlo, an operating-room nurse in New York told those gathered. Cenzon-DeCarlo described how she was “coerced to participate in a 22-week abortion,” while working in an emergency room at Mt. Sinai hospital in New York. Her nursing license was threatened by employees of a hospital that receives federal funding.

The Health Care Conscience Rights Act would give someone in Cenzon-DeCarlo’s position a “private right of action” to go to court, rather than appealing to the Department of Health and Human Services, which itself currently has some religious-liberty discrimination problems.

“I would like to think that we can be big enough and bold enough to all embrace the fundamental concept of protecting rights of conscience and religious freedom for all people,” Fortenberry said. “And that we would aggressively avoid the government setting up a religious test,” he added in an appeal for bipartisan action.

The government should not be “narrowly defining religious conscience,” the government should not be “deciding who is religious enough, who is faithful enough,” treating religious freedom as if it were “a gift for the government to give.”

Fortenberry was joined by Diane Black, the lead sponsor of the legislation in this Congress. A nurse, she condemned the White House for “forcing Americans to make an impossible choice: either defy your religious convictions or break the law and face financially crippling legal penalties.”

“As a family physician who has treated thousands of patients during more than 30 years of practicing medicine, [I believe that] the integrity of the doctor-patient relationship is invaluable,” Representative Fleming said. “Health-care workers are dedicated to caring for their patients, and the religious freedom of these health-care workers, and providers alike, must be protected. No individual should be forced or coerced to perform an abortion. Likewise, neither non-profit nor for-profit businesses, universities or other health-care providers should be required to cover drugs that can lead to the destruction of human life,” he continued.

Cenzon-DeCarlo, the New York nurse, offered a dramatic reminder of what we’re called to be better stewards of here.

“I emigrated with a belief that religious freedom and religious conscience are sacred,” she said, having become a citizen in 2011. “Without freedom that we can really protect, this country would no longer be the country of my dreams,” she said. “Patients and doctors should be able to choose health care that heals instead of kills. Every American — including new citizens like me — can enjoy the freedom this country was founded on.”

Explaining why she was in Washington for the press conference and a staff briefing, she told me this trend toward a narrowing of religious liberty in the United States “is alien to me, that America would allow this: Wasn’t this country founded by people seeking religious freedom?”

She issued a challenge not only to Congress but the media: “I feel that media can be manipulated here. There are some stories that get out and there are some stories that do not,” she told me. 

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