WASHINGTON (BP) — The United States’ two largest religious denominations have joined forces in an effort to protect freedom of conscience as full enforcement of the Obama administration’s abortion/contraception mandate nears.
The leading religious freedom spokesmen for Southern Baptists and American Roman Catholics — Russell D. Moore and William Lori, respectively — urged Congress in a letter Friday (June 21) to pass legislation designed to bolster conscience protections in health care. The letter from Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and Lori, archbishop of Baltimore and chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ ad hoc committee for religious liberty, went to all members of the Senate and House of Representatives.
The proposal for which they sought support — the Health Care Conscience Rights Act, H.R. 940 in the House and S. 1204 in the Senate — addresses health care generally, but Moore and Lori cited the abortion/contraception mandate as the most immediate challenge to religious freedom in that arena.
The mandate, part of regulations implementing the 2010 health-care reform law, requires nearly all employers to carry insurance plans that cover drugs defined by the federal government as contraceptives, even if they can cause chemical abortions. Among those state-defined contraceptives are Plan B and other “morning-after” pills, which can prevent implantation of tiny embryos, and “ella,” which, in a fashion similar to the abortion drug RU 486, can act even after implantation to end the life of a child. The rule mandates plans to underwrite sterilization for women and related “education and counseling.”
The abortion/contraception requirement is the target of more than 60 federal lawsuits and will be implemented for Christian institutions and other non-profit organizations beginning Aug. 1. It will take effect when each organization’s health plan begins a new year. The mandate’s start-up date for for-profit organizations was Aug. 1 of 2012.
While acknowledging Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics differ theologically, Moore and Lori said in their letter they are united in believing legislative action is needed to protect freedom of conscience.
“[M]any people are being forced — and many others will soon be forced — to either follow what the government compels or suffer” for their beliefs, they wrote. Southern Baptists and Catholics both “value God’s gift of procreation,” Moore and Lori told senators and representatives, and they also agree regarding the mandate:
— “[I]t is wrong to promote drugs and devices that destroy a newly conceived human life at any stage. . . .
— “[U]nmarried minors must not be subject to government-mandated ‘counseling’ on sex and birth control without their parents’ knowledge or over their objections….
— “[T]he religious beliefs of our faith communities and others must not be suppressed or ignored by a government supposedly committed to protect the religious freedom of all.”
They also cited the need to protect the conscience rights of medical workers, who increasingly face pressure to assist in “the destruction of innocent life.”
Regarding the letter, Moore said, “We will not stand by as deeply held beliefs are being trampled by the federal government.”
There are 77.7 million Catholics in the United States. The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest non-Catholic denomination with about 15.8 million members in more than 46,000 churches.
While the USCCB opposes coverage of all contraceptives, the ERLC’s objection is to contraceptives that can cause abortions.
The abortion/contraception mandate, also known as the HHS mandate because of its issuance by the Department of Health and Human Services, gives those who object to it, the ERLC says, three options, all unacceptable: (1) violate their consciences by obeying it; (2) violate the law, which could produce hefty fines; or (3) stop providing health coverage, which could force workers to purchase insurance with provisions they object to and possibly open the employers up to penalties.
At a Capitol Hill briefing June 21 Barrett Duke, ERLC vice president for public policy and research, said the federal government “is basically putting us in a position where we have to decide whether … to obey God or to obey our government.”
“Southern Baptists are determined to obey God, and we are standing with Catholics on this because this isn’t only a Catholic issue,” Duke said. “This is a Southern Baptist issue; this is an evangelical issue; this is a faith issue.”
While the “offense is abortion-causing drugs,” he said, the “real issue here is religious freedom, and that’s what we believe is at stake right now.”
Duke joined other pro-life and religious liberty advocates in providing background to staffers for senators and representatives regarding the Health Care Conscience Rights Act.
The bill amends the health care reform law to protect Americans from having to purchase or provide insurance that includes coverage of abortion or another service to which they object on “moral or religious” grounds. It also bars discrimination by the government against health care workers or institutions refusing to participate in abortions.
The House bill, introduced by Rep. Diane Black, R.-Tenn., in March, has 177 cosponsors. Sens. Deb Fischer, R.-Neb., and Tom Coburn, R.-Okla., introduced the Senate version the same week Moore and Lori sent their letter to Congress.
Of the 61 lawsuits that have been filed against the abortion/contraception mandate, 32 are by for-profits. Included are Christian publisher Tyndale House, Christian-owned Hobby Lobby and businesses owned by Catholics, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Courts have granted injunctions to 20 for-profit corporations blocking enforcement of the mandate, but have refused to provide such relief to Hobby Lobby and six others. No action has been taken in five for-profit lawsuits.
On June 18 Geneva College, a Christian school in western Pennsylvania, became the first non-profit to receive such relief from a court. Courts have dismissed 18 of the non-profit lawsuits, citing procedural issues.
The Obama administration proposed a rule change in February to address conscience objections to the abortion/contraception mandate. Religious liberty advocates said it appears to protect churches and church ministries, but not religious institutions and individuals.
The ERLC has signed onto five briefs defending the religious freedom of entities challenging the mandate at the appeals court level.
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).