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US Bishops Applaud Health Care Conscience Rights Act of 2013

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is applauding a new bill introduced this week by Rep. Diane Black (R-TN) and 50 other House members which will ensure that federal conscience protection laws currently on the books will be enforced to protect the conscience rights of all Americans.

The USCCB is reporting that the bill, known as the Health Care Conscience Rights Act of 2013 (H.R. 940) was introduced on March 4. The bill contains provisions that will extend the longstanding federal policy on conscience rights to new coverage mandates for private health plans created by the Affordable Care Act. This will ensure that Americans are not forced to violate their fundamental moral and religious convictions in order to offer, sponsor and purchase health coverage.

The new law also clarifies current nondiscrimination laws to improve protection of individuals and institutions that decline involvement in abortion, allowing the victims of discrimination to vindicate their rights in court.

In a February 15 letter, Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the USCCB's Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, urged Congress to enact similar conscience and religious freedom protection provisions like those now contained in H.R. 940 as part of "must-pass" legislation for continued funding of federal programs.

As he points out in his letter, these provisions are nothing new but have been part of U.S. law for years. For instance, the Hyde/Weldon amendment which prohibits the use of taxpayer money to fund abortion, has been on the books for years. Another section of the new law follows a 1999 Congressional mandate for contraceptive coverage in federal employees' health benefits that exempts any insurer with a religious objection. Both of these laws have been signed by numerous Presidents and Congresses in the past.

"It can hardly be said that all these Presidents and Congresses, of both parties, had been waging a war on women," Archbishop Lori writes. "I have seen no evidence that such laws, showing respect for Americans’ conscientious beliefs, have done any harm to women or to their advancement in society.

"What seems to be at issue instead 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. And while the mandate for coverage of abortion-causing drugs, contraceptives and sterilization is hailed by some as a victory for women’s freedom, it permits no free choice by a female employee to decline such coverage for herself or her minor children, even if it violates her moral and religious convictions."

He goes on to lament the Administration's coercive birth control mandate which has remained unchanged after several attempts to "accommodate" people of faith.

"In short, 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. The new approach even threatens to undermine access to quality health care, by telling providers as well as those who offer or purchase insurance that they need to drop their participation in the health care system if they want to preserve their religious and moral integrity. A restoration of full respect for one of our Nation’s founding values is urgently needed."

Archbishop Lori expressed gratitude for the introduction of HR 940, a bill which will correct many of the serious encroachments on the religious liberty of all Americans that have occurred in recent months.

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