The Battle for Conscience Rights Rages On
A NOTE FROM OUR PUBLISHER: Conscience protections don’t limit health care; they enhance it by removing ideology from medical practice and science.
In February 2012, EWTN filed the first of its legal challenges against the Obama administration’s so-called “HHS mandate,” which would have forced organizations like EWTN and the Little Sisters of the Poor to provide contraception, abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization procedures as part of our employer-sponsored health-care plans. For EWTN, that legal battle went on for nearly seven years — and for the Little Sisters, even longer. At the heart of that fight was whether or not the government could force faith-based organizations to act contrary to their deeply held religious values and in violation of their conscience.
More than nine years later, the issue of conscience rights is again taking center stage in our national discussions as the Biden administration continues to ramp up its promotion of tax-funded abortion and “gender-transition” medical treatments.
Earlier in March, the Senate confirmed Xavier Becerra, a Catholic who dissents openly from the Church’s foundational moral teachings regarding the sanctity of human life and sexuality, as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. As attorney general of California, Becerra infamously filed suit to take away the religious exemptions protecting the Little Sisters of the Poor from the provisions of the HHS mandate.
The Senate also confirmed Dr. Rachel Levine, a biological man who identifies as a transgender woman, as assistant secretary of the HHS.
With these two officials at the helm, the HHS is certain to rapidly accelerate the Biden administration’s radical agenda of tax-funded abortion and mandatory gender-reassignment treatments, including for children and teens.
The threat to conscience rights is compounded by the Senate Democrats’ looming bid to strip away the capacity of Republican senators to filibuster the dangerous Equality Act that is now awaiting the chamber’s consideration. This highly destructive bill, against which the U.S. bishops have publicly mobilized, has already passed the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives.
If Senate Democrats abolish the filibuster, the Equality Act is highly likely to pass the Senate too. This would unleash an all-out federal assault on the conscience rights of Catholics, religious believers and others who oppose abortion and the gender-rights agenda on the basis of their sincerely held convictions.
Yet, despite these ominous signs at the federal level, there are encouraging signs at the state level.
On March 26, Arkansas Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed his state’s new Medical Ethics and Diversity Act. The law specifies that a “medical practitioner, healthcare institution, or healthcare payer has the right not to participate in a healthcare service that violates his, her, or its conscience, and is not required to participate in a healthcare service that violates his, her, or its conscience.”
The law also specifies that individuals and institutions that have a “religious purpose or mission” — such as Catholic hospitals — have “the right to make employment, staffing, contracting, and admitting privilege decisions consistent with his, her, or its religious beliefs.”
The Arkansas legislation, which goes into effect in August, is badly needed and extremely timely.
In the hostile context that exists on the federal level, as many states as possible need to enact measures similar to Arkansas’ new medical conscience-protection law. And several states, including Kentucky, Montana, New Mexico, South Carolina and Texas, already are moving forward on draft bills patterned along the same lines as the Arkansas legislation.
Another layer of protection is the passage of state Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, or RFRAs, which place a permanent brake on unjustified infringements of religious liberty.
Currently, versions of RFRAs are in place in 21 states. Alongside enhanced protections of religious freedom, some states have girded themselves against anticipated federal incursions by introducing new laws restricting access to abortion. Similarly, legislation has been passed or is up for consideration in several states to restrict gender-transition treatments for minors.
For Catholics, now is the time to stay informed on these important measures and make our voices heard in support of these state-level efforts.
Many of the new laws being passed at the state level are likely to be contested in the courts and ultimately will come before the U.S. Supreme Court for a final judgment. Those working to safeguard faith-based medical personnel and institutions’ freedom to practice health care without violating their consciences say the passage of such laws is necessary to protect the civil rights of health-care professionals and to maintain vital medical care for communities across the country.
Conscience protections don’t limit health care; they enhance it by removing ideology from medical practice and science. Let’s hope that our judges have the wisdom to draw the same conclusions, if and when they are called to pass judgment on the constitutionality of these measures.
Not so very long ago, it would have seemed unthinkable that our federal government could ever contemplate legislation and executive actions to facilitate abortion and procedures seeking to transition human bodies into the opposite sex — let alone try to make it illegal for religious believers to refuse to cooperate in these profound moral evils. But that’s where things stand now.
Fortunately, even though the Biden administration and the Democrat-controlled Congress are currently driving these agendas further forward, opportunities still abound at the state level to restrain them. Even more fortunately, as Christians we know that these evils will never be able to stand permanently, as they are so contrary to God’s plan for the protection and flourishing of the human person.
May God bless you!