WASHINGTON — The U.S. bishops have issued a strong rebuke of a Senate bill that would have denied conscience rights to employers in the field of health coverage.
“We are writing to state our strong opposition to the misnamed ‘Protect Women’s Health From Corporate Interference Act of 2014’ (S. 2578),” wrote Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore and Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston in a letter to all U.S. senators on Monday.
Archbishop Lori is the chairman of the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, and Cardinal O’Malley is the chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities.
“In short, the bill does not befit a nation committed to religious liberty. Indeed, if it were to pass, it would call that commitment into question,” the bishops wrote.
The proposed legislation would force employers with group health plans to cover any “specific health-care item” mandated by federal law or regulations, despite religious-liberty protections.
It was introduced after the Supreme Court ruled on June 30 that federal religious-freedom laws protect the owners of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Services from being forced to comply with parts of the federal contraception mandate against their religious beliefs.
The two closely held businesses, run by Protestant and Mennonite owners respectively, objected to aspects of the mandate, which requires employers to offer health-insurance covering contraception, sterilization and some drugs that can cause early abortions.
Cardinal O’Malley and Archbishop Lori warned that the proposed bill could seriously harm religious freedom, both that of for-profit companies like Hobby Lobby and nonprofit religious groups, such as the Little Sisters of the Poor. More than 50 nonprofits have filed lawsuits against the mandate, arguing that an “accommodation” for nonprofit religious freedom granted by the government still forces them to violate their consciences.
“The bill expressly leaves in place only the HHS mandate’s own insufficiently narrow exemption for ‘houses of worship’ and its contested ‘accommodation’ for religious nonprofit organizations,” the bishops wrote.
Furthermore, the bill could grant the executive branch power to do away with such “exemptions” and “accommodations” altogether, they said.
“The bill allows modifications to the mandate and its exemption and ‘accommodation,’ but only those ‘consistent with the purpose and findings of this act.’ That is, the executive branch would appear to be free to reduce or eliminate the exemption or ‘accommodation,’ but forbidden to expand the exemption or otherwise make changes that might reduce the scope of mandated coverage.”
Cardinal O’Malley and Archbishop Lori also pointed out that the bill could trump “long-standing conscience clauses on abortion, such as the Hyde-Weldon Amendment.” Additionally, if health-coverage mandates were expanded in the future to include coverage of the abortion pill RU-486 or late-term abortions, employers would have no recourse to exemptions for conscience.
On July 16, the bill failed to proceed after it was supported by 56 of the Senate’s 100 members, four votes short of the 60 required.
Commenting afterward on the vote, Jayd Henricks, USCCB director of government relations, said, “While the outcome of today's vote is a relief, it is sobering to think that more than half the members of the U.S. Senate, sworn to uphold the laws and Constitution of the United States, would vote for a bill whose purpose is to reduce the religious freedom of their fellow Americans. We need more respect for religious freedom in our nation, not less.”