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Bishops: "We will not rest until the protection of conscience rights is restored..."

The U.S. Senate hasn't presented a budget for over a thousand days, but it wasted little time yesterday in putting aside the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act. Forcing all Americans to pay for contraceptives and appeasing the gods of "reproductive justice" is apparently of greater importance than being fiscally responsible and taking measures to help an economic recovery:

 Senate Democrats have blocked an amendment that would have let insurers opt out of providing contraceptive coverage if employers had religious or moral objections.

The Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, shorthanded as "the conscience amendment" and authored by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., was "tabled," or set aside, on a 51-48 vote.
Democrats needed 50 votes to prevail.

Blunt's amendment to a transportation bill would exempt employers from a new government mandate, soon to be put in place under the Patient's Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Blunt, on the Senate floor shortly before the vote, staunchly defended his proposal and said it would not fade away no matter the outcome Thursday. Firing back at critics, the senator said the measure would do nothing to change existing policy. It would only apply to new health care overhaul provisions that have not yet taken effect.

Blunt, in a separate statement, said the proposal "simply preserves and protects the fundamental religious freedom that Americans have enjoyed for more than 220 years." He decried "blatant attempts to frighten and mislead Americans" about the measure.

Democrats, though, said the proposal went too far and could threaten access to care.

"It appeals to the social agenda of a small, very vocal part of the Republican Party," Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said.

Reid apparently failed to notice that the "small, very vocal part of the Republican Party" included all Republicans except Sen. Snowe (ME), who rarely votes with the Republican majority, and three Democrats. For sake of some clarity, he should have said, "It appeals to all Republicans and a even some in the Democrat Party". With such an embarrassing failure to understand basic facts and numbers, no wonder a budget has yet to be considered, let alone put into writing. Meanwhile, the USCCB issued a statement that included the following:

“The need to defend citizens’ rights of conscience is the most critical issue before our country right now,” said Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Bishop Lori chairs the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). “We will continue our strong defense of conscience rights through all available legal means. Religious freedom is at the heart of democracy and rooted in the dignity of every human person. We will not rest until the protection of conscience rights is restored and the First Amendment is returned to its place of respect in the Bill of Rights.”

“I am grateful today to Senator Roy Blunt and the 47 other Senators who cast a bipartisan vote reaffirming our nation’s long tradition of respect for rights of conscience in health care,” said Bishop Lori. “We will build on this base of support as we pursue legislation in the House of Representatives, urge the Administration to change its course on this issue, and explore our legal rights under the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

Freedom of conscience has been in the forefront since the Obama Administration issued a regulation under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act forcing most employers, including religious institutions, to provide coverage for sterilization and contraceptives, including abortion-inducing drugs, even when they violate church teaching.

As for the bigger picture, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, Director of Media Relations for the USCCB, wrote this three days ago:

It is the church, not Caesar, that defines ministry. We Catholics are called to serve others because we’re Catholic, not because they are. We help others because of their need, not their creed. For the government to hold fast to its new definition of ministry, one crafted by the American Civil Liberties Union, reflects deafness to the Constitution that is unbecoming to the man sworn to defend it.

There has been some talk of accommodation, whereby (it is claimed) some Catholic institutions would not have to pay for services that violate their religious beliefs. Apparently, their insurance companies would pay for the services instead. One doesn’t have to be a cynic to question where the money to pay for those services will come from, as the only pool of available funds seems to be the premiums subsidized by the objecting religious institutions. And the government’s problematic definition of religious ministry still remains. There also is the question of what self-insured Catholic organizations are supposed to do. What good does it do to say the dirty work will be done by the insurer rather than the employer, if they are one and the same?

The Administration’s intrusive decision about what does and does not constitute religious ministry should make every American pause. What falls after freedom of religion? Freedom of the press? Will Caesar tell you what you have to print or air?

Days before President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to the miserly religious exemption in his Administration’s regulation; the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision pertinent to religious freedom. In the Hosanna-Tabor case, the Court upheld 9-0 the right of a Lutheran Church to decide who its ministers are. The Obama Administration had taken the opposite, and losing, side, arguing that the church had no more right of religious liberty than a secular organization. One would have expected the Court’s resounding rejection of that argument to bring the Administration’s eyes into focus on the religious liberty question. Clearly it did not. 

Read her entire statement on the USCCB blog.

 
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Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight.
 
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