HHS mandate called 'unprecedented assault on religious freedom'
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The right to religious freedom as stated in the First Amendment "goes into the soul of America. People came here for religious freedom," said Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, R-N.Y.
Buerkle was one of four members of the U.S. House of Representatives who gathered at Georgetown University June 28 to discuss religious freedom in front of an audience concerned about the health care reform law and the federal contraceptive mandate issued by Department of Health and Human Services.
Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown, gave the introduction and welcome.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., led off the morning discussion, saying he believes the HHS mandate "would force everyone to choose between their government and their beliefs."
The HHS mandate, part of the new heath care law, requires most religious employers to provide contraceptives, including some abortion-causing drugs, and sterilization to their employees at no cost. It includes a narrow exemption.
For the panel of speakers at Georgetown, a major problem with the mandate is its lack of a conscience clause.
Quoting James Madison, Fortenberry said, "Conscience is the most sacred of all property."
"It (HHS) will force religious organizations to violate their conscience," said Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn. "It is an unprecedented assault on religious freedom."
The lawmakers also agreed that it is more than just a "Catholic" problem.
"This is not a Catholic issue," Buerkle said. "It is about the rights of religious freedom at every level."
Black also commented that "freedom of religion should not be treated as a revocable privilege. The president (Barack Obama) is putting personal and political policies above our principles."
Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., said: "We need more Americans to see how this (mandate) is a threat to religious freedom. I am not happy with the mandatory providing of drugs and abortion services."
Buerkle agreed, stating, "We want to empower the nurse who doesn't want to start the IV for an abortion."
On Aug. 1, the contraceptive mandate takes effect for new health plans and those that undergo significant changes, unless the narrow religious exemption or the one-year "temporary enforcement safe harbor" for organizations that do not provide contraceptives for religious reasons applies.
"It becomes an impossible choice for religious affiliated institutions," Black said. "This will forever change the relationship with the government and our people. Catholic hospitals could start shutting down. It's pretty devastating."
The representatives then continued to detail how religious affiliated health care institutions are leaders in extending services to all in need and do a "better job than most for-profit organizations."
"This law is directed at religious providers, the forerunners of compassion," Fortenberry said. "(Many will have to) choose between faith and their job. There will be people who will leave the profession rather than compromise beliefs."
Buerkle said freedom of religion is a right given by God. "The government does not grant us rights, it protects us. The rights are God-given, government-protected. This HHS mandate is 'granting' us rights. This is what's so serious."
As of mid-June, 56 Catholic entities are plaintiffs in 23 individual lawsuits against the mandate. Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina was the first to file suit, on Nov. 10, 2011.
At the close of the discussion, Fortenberry mentioned an email he had received from a friend in the medical field.
"I got an email from a doctor friend; the friend was cynical," Fortenberry said. "He said it is a government attempt to push Catholic health care out of the market. Why else would the government give such a mandate to provide or disobey? August 1 is the day it starts."
— Catherine McDonough, Catholic News Service
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