Democratic Party Aligns With the Growing Disregard for Religious Exemptions

According to pro-life Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski, ‘there are Democrats now who say that religious freedom, religious liberty are just code words for bigotry.’

Former vice-president Joe Biden formally launches his 2020 presidential campaign during a rally May 18, 2019, at Eakins Oval in Philadelphia.
Former vice-president Joe Biden formally launches his 2020 presidential campaign during a rally May 18, 2019, at Eakins Oval in Philadelphia. (photo: Matt Smith/Shutterstock)

Editor’s Note: This article has been amended to correct a misstatement that Sen. Tim Kaine, D.-Va., opposes the Hyde Amendment. Sen. Kaine’s office has advised the Register that, after it was erroneously reported in 2016 that he had shifted his position regarding the amendment, the senator corrected the record by stating publicly, “I support the Hyde Amendment. I haven’t changed that."

WASHINGTON — In the past year, opposition to religious exemptions has become more evident in the Democratic Party, especially when it comes to abortion and contraception — including among the party’s congressional leadership and its presumptive presidential nominee.  

Recently, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., discussed the “injustice” of the Hyde Amendment, a 44-year-old appropriations rider that blocks taxpayer funding of abortion and has been included in spending bills for decades on a bipartisan basis.

Additionally, many Democrats, including presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, voiced their disappointment at the Little Sisters of the Poor’s religious exemption to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate being upheld at the Supreme Court. Biden commented that the ruling would “continue to strip health care from women.”

Both Pelosi and Biden are Catholic, and both for decades have supported legal abortion, despite the Church’s consistent, unequivocal teaching that abortion is a grave moral evil and consequently should never be accepted or endorsed.

Speaker Pelosi’s comments on the injustice of the Hyde Amendment came after a failed Democratic internal effort to exclude the amendment from spending bills. This push was ultimately deemed imprudent in an election year with a GOP-controlled Senate, according to Politico.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, who was part of that debate, has recently come out against the amendment, but back in 2010, she was among a contingent of Democrats who pressured President Barack Obama to include Hyde Amendment protections in the Affordable Care Act through an executive order. At the time, Kaptur described the Hyde Amendment as representing “the broad consensus of the American people after 32 years of consideration on this issue.”

While recent polling on the issue still shows the “broad consensus” of 60% of Americans opposing taxpayer-funded abortions, Kaptur is not alone in her reversal on the issue. The repeal of the Hyde Amendment was added to the Democratic Party platform in 2016, and many Democrats have reversed their stance on the issue in the past few years, including Biden last summer.


Birth Control Access ‘a Value’

Another area that has highlighted the shifts in the political left’s views on religious liberty is the Supreme Court’s recent decision granting the Little Sisters of the Poor a religious exemption to the contraceptive mandate, due to their belief in the Catholic teaching that contraception is “morally unacceptable.” Biden found the ruling “disappointing” and promised, if elected, to return to an Obama-era “accommodation” that the U.S. bishops have said in the past did not resolve the issue.

Biden’s failure to acknowledge the moral dilemma of the order of Catholic sisters who care for the elderly poor was very much in line with activist groups and prominent Democrats who framed the decision simply in terms of denying health care to women.

Pelosi called the decision a “brutal assault on women’s health, financial security and independence.”

In 2012, when asked about the lawsuit brought by the Little Sisters of the Poor and other Catholic groups against the mandate, she replied, “Those people have a right to sue, but I don’t think they’re speaking for the Catholic Church.” Regarding the clear Church teaching on contraception, she told reporters at the time, “I do my religion on Sunday in church, and I try to go other days of the week. I don’t do it at this press conference.”

When Trump initially rolled back the contraceptive mandate in 2017, Pelosi called the move “a sign of disrespect for women,” declaring that to her and her allies in Congress, birth-control coverage “is for us a value.”

That statement has played out in the continued fight over the mandate, as Democrats in Congress have repeatedly introduced the Planned Parenthood-backed “Protect Access to Birth Control Act” that would end Trump’s exemptions to the contraceptive mandate.

One of the Democrats who backed that legislation is Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., a Catholic who claims to be pro-life, but who had a major reversal on the mandate over the past decade.

Casey wrote to President Obama in 2012, “I have strongly supported efforts to provide greater access to contraception and I also believe, just as strongly, that religiously-affiliated organizations like hospitals and universities should not be compelled by our Federal government to purchase insurance policies that violate their religious and moral convictions. Finally, I believe that these two objectives do not have to be mutually exclusive. Reasonable people can find common ground on this issue.”

Fast-forward to July 2020, when Casey, in a statement backing the Protect Access to Birth Control Act, stated, “Allowing a private employer to deny employees access to birth control treats all who rely on it like second-class citizens, and will disproportionately impact low-wage workers, people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community who already face barriers to care.”


Dan Lipinski’s Perspective

The shift of Democrats like Casey and Kaptur on these issues is reflective of a larger shift in the party.

The 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), after all, was introduced by then-Rep. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and co-sponsored by then-Rep. Pelosi. The legislation, which clarifies the standards to protect religious liberty that should be applied in legal cases involving the Free-Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, passed unanimously in the House and nearly unanimously in the Senate, with just three votes against it.

By contrast, a large group of Democrats now seek to amend RFRA to specify that religious exceptions should not apply to “access to, information about, referrals for, provision of, or coverage for, any health-care item or service.”

Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., is in political terms a victim of this party shift as an eight-term Catholic, pro-life congressman who lost his primary recently to pro-abortion challenger Marie Newman after abortion groups backed her with substantial funding.

Lipinski, who is Catholic, told the Register that “there are Democrats now who say that religious freedom, religious liberty are just code words for bigotry, and that’s very troubling to me.”

“I think there is really a failure to understand what religious liberty means, how it is enshrined there in the First Amendment to the Constitution,” he said. “There’s been a real attempt to limit religious liberty to being about the practice of one’s own faith, really narrow it down to ‘you can practice your own faith’ — but it stops there.”

Recalling RFRA’s near-unanimous passage, Lipinski said that “the fact that the support is no longer there, I think, is a serious issue.” Lipinski said that the Supreme Court has “done well” in upholding religious freedom, but he couldn’t believe that, “here we are 10 years after the Affordable Care Act was passed, and we’re still having to go to court on the contraceptive mandate.”

He said the battle over the mandate “has become in some ways symbolic,” and “the desire amongst some to continue this issue really goes back to the abortion issue and the attempt to tie this very closely to the issue of abortion.”

Lipinski said that “the radicalism on the pro-abortion side” has “gotten to a point where abortion and access to abortion needs to be not only defended but promoted.”


Pressure on Biden

He cited the pressure on Biden to change his stance on the Hyde Amendment. He said that push is part of the radicalization on abortion, which has shifted from President Bill Clinton’s mantra of “safe, legal and rare” to the claim that “it’s just a medical treatment.”

“There’s a way people had approached abortion, even those who were in favor of abortion rights, 20, 30 years ago,” Lipinski said. “There was an understanding of a very deep question of what abortion is, and that there’s disagreement over it, but it was not something that should be taken lightly whatsoever by people on either side.”

“There’s been a change now,” he added. “If you don’t support taxpayer funding of abortion, then you really are not truly pro-choice: That has become a litmus test.”

Regarding Pelosi’s remarks calling Hyde an “injustice,” Lipinski said that “Speaker Pelosi understands that, at this point, the Hyde Amendment is not going to be eliminated by Congress; but certainly she knows that the push is there to do it, and if it becomes possible politically to do it in Congress, I’m sure that will be done.”

He pointed out that 64 Democrats voted in favor of adding Hyde Amendment protections to the Affordable Care Act and that most of those members are no longer in Congress, although “there’s a small number that are and have changed their position on that.”

Lipinski noted that in the 2020 presidential election, Biden “is clearly under pressure from the left in the party to go with them on these issues of religious freedom,” but added that, previously, “that’s not where Joe Biden has been politically or, one would assume, personally.”

A recent instance of that pressure on Biden is a letter the American Civil Liberties Union sent to him alongside an ad campaign that said, “in the first 100 days of your presidency, you can make your priorities clear by striking the Hyde and Weldon amendments, and all abortion coverage restrictions, from your first budget and telling Congress that you won’t sign bills with abortion coverage restrictions.”

“I’m hopeful that this is not truly a change, but if he’s elected president, we’ll see,” Lipinski said of Biden. “We need to continue wherever we can to talk about what religious liberty means. I just think there’s a real misunderstanding about this issue.”

Noah Weinrich, press secretary for Heritage Action, told the Register that Biden’s reversal on Hyde “shows where his priorities really lie” and that “he is following the far left for many of his policy cues, including on religious freedom, and is no moderate on religious freedom.”

“The left was once willing to compromise and make exemptions for religious freedom; they now refuse to grant those exemptions for anyone,” Weinrich said. He highlighted the response from Democrats when the Trump administration created a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in 2018 to help enforce existing federal and state laws regarding conscience-based objections in health care. More than 40 House Democrats immediately wrote a letter to HHS stating that “while peoples of faith can have honest disagreements, religious beliefs should not be used to further roll back access to medical care.”

And House Democrats have since repeatedly introduced a Planned Parenthood-backed bill to eliminate the division entirely.

“Until the last 10 years or so, I don’t think you would have seen such a fierce outcry,” Weinrich said. “Many on the left objected to the mere existence of an HHS division defending the consciences and freedoms for the religious.”


Pro-Life Criticism

Pro-life groups have praised the division and the Trump administration’s actions to protect conscience rights when it comes to abortion.

Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser, a member of the Catholics Advisory Committee for President Trump’s 2016 campaign, told the Register that he “has shown exceptionally strong leadership on protecting life and conscience rights. Acting on the will of the majority of Americans, he has worked diligently to stop taxpayer funding of abortion.”

“No one should ever be forced to be complicit in abortion — not religious objectors like the Little Sisters of the Poor, or moral objectors like SBA List,” she said. “Yet presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Pelosi Democrats in Congress have attacked pro-life policies like the Hyde Amendment, which has saved an estimated 2.4 million lives, and Biden has promised to reverse the Little Sisters’ recent Supreme Court win and force them to provide abortifacient drugs in their health plans.”

Lauretta Brown is the Register’s Washington-based staff writer.