House Passes ‘Build Back Better’ As Bishops Raise Religious Freedom and Abortion Objections

“We have been consistent in our position and reiterate that it would be a calamity if the important and life-affirming provisions in this bill were accompanied by provisions facilitating and funding the destruction of unborn human life,” the bishops’ letter stated.

United States Capitol building in Washington, D.C.
United States Capitol building in Washington, D.C. (photo: Unsplash)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House of Representatives narrowly passed the Build Back Better Act on Nov. 19, voting 220-213 to approve nearly $2 trillion in domestic spending for a host of ambitious new social programs, including universal pre-kindergarten, increased child care subsidies, and initiatives aimed at shifting the country away from fossil fuels.

The morning vote was almost entirely along party lines. Rep. Jared Golden, D-Maine, was the lone Democrat to break with his party and voted “no” on the bill. The legislation still needs to be passed in the U.S. Senate.

In a statement released by the White House, President Joe Biden, D, hailed the bill as transformative legislation that would "create jobs, reduce costs, make our country more competitive, and give working people and the middle class a fighting chance.”

Further, Biden said the bill would get “Americans back to work by providing child care and care for seniors,” and would cut taxes on the middle class. 

The bill, along with the infrastructure law, is “the most significant investment in our fight against the climate crisis,” said Biden. 

Catholic and pro-life organizations, however, warned that the contents of the bill could prove disastrous for religious freedom.

“[House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi and her allies are sneakily working to force Americans to be complicit in abortion on demand up to birth every which way they can,” Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser said in a statement following the passage of the bill. 

“Today [Pelosi] even touted the fact that the popular bipartisan Hyde and Helms amendments, which stop taxpayer funding of abortion both at home and overseas, are simply ‘not in the bill,’” she said.

The Hyde and Helms amendments restrict the use of taxpayer funds for elective abortions in the U.S. and abroad, respectively. They have been included as riders in budgetary bills since the 1970s. 

Prior to Friday’s vote, in a Nov. 3 letter to members of Congress, six bishop chairmen of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) expressed support for the broad goals and many of the provisions in the bill that “support the poor and vulnerable and strengthen the social safety net.”

Specifically, the bishops pointed to “an extension to the recent expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit; provisions to support families such as a permanent refundable Child Tax Credit, childcare resources, in-home care for family members, and a strengthening of child nutrition programs; an expansion of SSI to residents of U.S. territories; affordable housing provisions; and important environmental provisions, especially climate and energy programs critical to achieving emissions reductions targets." 

At the same time, the bishops' letter expressed grave concerns about provisions the bishops say threaten religious freedom rights and the the lives of the unborn.

“Specifically, while expanded access to early child care and pre-k would be beneficial for many working families, we are concerned that the current provisions to do so — in a departure from the approach in existing federal programs — explicitly make providers recipients of federal financial assistance and attach new and troubling compliance obligations,” the letter said.

“This will effectively exclude many faith-based providers from participation (or in some already existing state-based programs, continued participation), thereby severely limiting options for families, and suppressing a mixed delivery system," the letter stated.

The letter also called the provisions for direct government funding of abortion in the bill “completely unacceptable,” and urged Congress to restore those long standing restrictions.

“We have been consistent in our position and reiterate that it would be a calamity if the important and life-affirming provisions in this bill were accompanied by provisions facilitating and funding the destruction of unborn human life,” the bishops’ letter stated.

“No proposal to support individuals needing affordable health care coverage should compel Americans to pay for the destruction of human life through their tax dollars.”

In an interview with EWTN‘s Raymond Arroyo Thursday, pro-life leader U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-NJ, who voted against the bill, called it “the most pro-abortion piece of legislation that I’ve seen in years.” 

“It is overwhelmingly filled with money for abortion,” Smith said. “There is spigot after spigot after spigot that will fund abortion on demand.” 

In a statement Louis Brown, executive director of the Christ Medicus Foundation, a Catholic health care and religious freedom advocacy organization, echoed the bishops' objections to the restrictions on religious child care providers, and said the bill’s failure to include the Hyde Amendment “gravely harms babies in the womb.”

“Congress should seek changes in the social safety net without harming life and without undermining the ability of religious institutions to participate in the human service needs of our nation,” Brown said. 

The bill now goes to the Senate, which is evenly split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans. In a late September interview with National Review, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WV, a moderate Democrat, predicted the bill would be “dead on arrival” if the Hyde Amendment was not included.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra answers questions at a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing to discuss reopening schools during COVID-19 on Sept. 30 in Washington, DC.

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