WASHINGTON—Catholics and Baptists are coalescing behind bicameral legislation that would protect people of faith from being forced to pay for abortion-inducing drugs.
This week Sens. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., introduced the Health Care Conscience Act of 2013. The bill provides the same protections as the House legislation, H.R. 940, which Reps. Diane Black, R-Tenn., John Fleming, R-La., and Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., filed in March. The House bill has 177 cosponsors, including several Democrats.
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and Archbishop William Lori, chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ ad hoc committee for religious liberty, sent a joint letter to Congress on Friday urging lawmakers to pass the conscience protection legislation.
“Both of our denominations value God’s gift of procreation,” Moore and Lori wrote. “We agree that it is wrong to promote drugs and devices that destroy a newly conceived human life at any stage, as items mandated by this policy can do.”
The policy referred to in the letter is a Health and Human Services mandate that is part of the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s landmark healthcare law. The mandate requires insurance coverage plans to include abortifacients such as Plan B and Ella, which terminate pregnancy after fertilization.
Staff members of Sens. Fischer and Coburn—a physician who has delivered more than 4,000 babies—hosted a Friday morning meeting at the Capitol, where Catholic and Baptist leaders, along with representatives from Alliance Defending Freedom and Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, briefed congressional staffers on the need for the legislation. They said the bills don’t add any new freedoms but simply protect those that people of faith have always enjoyed.
“There’s been a very long, bipartisan consensus, Democrats and Republicans alike, that there should be protection for conscience rights in health care,” said Richard Doerflinger with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “We’re just trying to keep that from going away.”
Some states have conscience protection laws, but many do not. Even among those that do have the laws, many are outdated, since they were passed soon after Roe v. Wade made abortion legal on demand.
Doerflinger said the federal legislation will not allow anyone to raise an objection to providing healthcare on the basis of race. It also allows the government to mandate an equal financial burden, meaning organizations exempted from providing contraceptives in healthcare plans would make up for it by adding additional coverage elsewhere. He said that ensures no one could raise false or insincere conscience objections to save money.
“We’re not trying to get out from under covering things on financial grounds,” Doerflinger told me. “We’re trying to live by our faith and not have the government shut it down.”
Doerflinger said the legislation is urgently needed because nothing is stopping the federal government from next mandating that surgical abortions be covered in all healthcare plans.
The Obama administration has carved out a religious exemption to the abortion pill mandate, but many religious employers do not qualify for the exemption—neither do Christian for-profit business owners, such as Hobby Lobby's Green family.
The penalty for not complying with the mandate is $100 per day per employee, which would total $36,500 per year per employee. Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft stores, could be facing fines of up to $1.3 million per day.
According to the the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a total of 61 lawsuits have been filed against the government on behalf of more than 200 plaintiffs.
Advocates for the Conscience Rights Act are hoping the Senate bill will quickly begin picking up cosponsors, so they can pressure Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to take up the legislation. If that doesn’t work, they want to attach the House measure to a must-pass bill in order force the Senate to address the issue.
Wrote Moore and Lori: “While Catholics and Southern Baptists espouse different theological views, we are united by the belief that Congress must act to help preserve our freedom of religion and conscience.”