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U.S. funding bill mixed bag on pro-life, biblical gender, religious liberty

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WASHINGTON (BP) — The latest Congressional spending package allows federally funded gender transitions and essentially bypasses current restrictions on government-funded abortions, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) told Baptist Press.

“At the ERLC, we were glad to see that baseline pro-life provisions were retained in the second minibus that was passed last week,” ERLC Policy Associate Allison Cantrell said. “However, other provisions, such as those prohibiting the use of taxpayer dollars from funding abortion-related travel and ‘gender transitions,’ were excluded as a result of appropriations negotiations.

“We continue to encourage members of Congress to consider the role federal funding plays in subsidizing these harmful industries and look forward to engaging with appropriators on the FY25 budget.”

Protections for pre-born life, religious liberty and biblical gender are among ERLC’s prime concerns in the bill that offers certain protections while overlooking other concerns.

The $1.2 trillion bipartisan bill, which President Biden signed into law March 23, is an umbrella for six appropriations bills including Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education; the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Relations Programs; Financial Services and General Government; Defense, Homeland Security and Legislative.

Enabling abortions, the bill maintains for certain federal personnel funding for abortion-related travel, paid leave to obtain an abortion, and family planning funding for institutions that also fund abortions.

The package maintains $286 million for family planning and includes more than $100 million for teenage pregnancy prevention provided by organizations that also provide abortions, ERLC said. The entity also opposes the $32.5 million given to the United Nations Population Fund, which can be used for abortions.

But ERLC notes favorably that the bill maintains ongoing pro-life riders including the Hyde Amendment prohibiting federal funding for abortions; the Weldon Amendment shielding health insurance plans, hospitals and professionals that don’t cover abortion care; the Dickey-Wicker Amendment preventing the creation of human embryos for research by the Department of Health and Human Services; and related protections and restrictions in the 1981 Siljander Amendment and the 1985 Kemp-Kasten Amendment.

The bill has no explicit restrictions on the use of federal dollars to fund gender-affirming care including puberty blockers, counseling or surgeries, as such language included in the House draft of the bill was deleted, ERLC said.

ERLC noted several positive aspects of the bill for religious freedom, while lamenting negative aspects.

Notable bright spots are the bill’s increase from $3.5 million to $4 million in funding for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and the inclusion of the long-standing Lautenberg Amendment providing a pathway for entrance into the U.S. for persecuted religious minorities in the former Soviet Union.

The bill removes harmful language from a $52.5 million in education funding for the District of Columbia that would have essentially excluded private religious schools, and provides certain protections and exemptions for religious healthcare providers regarding contraceptive coverage.

But the bill does not prevent the use of federal funding in discriminating against employees who support the biblical definition of marriage, and prohibits funding to promote religious training for employment, ERLC noted.

ERLC has since 2023 advocated for the use of biblical principles, sending official letters to congressional members and committees.

“As a nation, our values and priorities are most clearly displayed through the allocation of our resources,” ERLC President Brent Leatherwood has said in advocating for policies embraced by Southern Baptists. “It is our desire for those resources to be used in a way that promotes life, religious liberty, and the flourishing of all our neighbors.”

While the ERLC can conduct no further advocacy on funding already approved, the entity is preparing to address concerns in upcoming legislation for the 2025 funding year.