WASHINGTON — In anticipation of upcoming legislation, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore urged the nation’s lawmakers to work this year “to restore a tradition on rights of conscience in health care.”
“I fear that the federal government’s respect for believers and people of conscience no longer measures up to the treatment Americans have a right to expect from their elected representatives,” Archbishop Lori said in a Feb. 15 letter to Congress.
The archbishop, who heads the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, voiced his support for several new legislative measures to protect religious freedom and warned of the negative consequences that would come from a failure to preserve rights of conscience.
He said that a current draft of an appropriations bill for the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services contains “two important provisions supported by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.”
The first of these provisions would “extend the long-standing federal policy on conscience” to new programs and mandates created and covered by the Affordable Care Act.
This extension would ensure that “Americans are not forced to violate their fundamental moral and religious convictions in order to offer, sponsor and purchase health coverage,” he explained.
The second important part of the bill would clarify nondiscrimination clauses, giving insurers and employees “the freedom to choose a plan consistent with their religious beliefs,” the archbishop continued.
This clause would also protect health-care professionals who refuse to prescribe or provide contraceptives due to their moral or religious beliefs.
Appropriations and funding bills have been used in the past to ensure conscience protections, Archbishop Lori observed, adding that such protections were instituted by President Bill Clinton and have enjoyed bipartisan support since then.
“It can hardly be said that all these presidents and Congresses, of both parties, had been waging a war on women,” he noted.
The archbishop also criticized attempts to restrict conscience protections, saying that he has “seen no evidence” that laws protecting religious freedom “have done any harm to women or to their advancement in society.”
Instead, he told members of Congress, there is “a new, more grudging attitude in recent years toward citizens whose faith or moral principles are not in accord with the views of the current governing power.”
He noted that while the Obama administration’s decision to mandate insurance coverage of contraceptives, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs “is hailed by some as a victory for women’s freedom, it permits no free choice” for women who object to this coverage for themselves and their minor children due to moral or religious beliefs.
Archbishop Lori echoed comments by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who chairs the bishops' conference, in critiquing the “coercive element” present in the latest proposal by the administration to amend the mandate.
Explaining that “the new proposal falls short of meeting the hopes and expectations of many concerned about religious freedom,” Archbishop Lori pointed to the narrow exemption for religious employers, the imposition into the private affairs of non-exempt religious groups and the mandate’s disregard for the conscience rights of non-religious and for-profit employers.
Furthermore, the new approach “threatens to undermine access to quality health care” because it tells insurance providers and purchasers “that they need to drop their participation in the health-care system if they want to preserve their religious and moral integrity,” he added.
Quoting Cardinal Dolan, he said that “the nation’s bishops remain committed to ‘engaging with the administration and all branches and levels of government.’”
He said, “A restoration of full respect for one of our nation’s founding values is urgently needed.”