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Dangerous intrusion on religious freedom

Congress concocts bill to override Hobby Lobby decision

“Congress has never passed legislation with the specific purpose of reducing Americans' religious freedom. It should not consider doing so now.”

So said a broad interfaith coalition of religious leaders to Congress last month, after the Supreme Court issued its decision in the Hobby Lobby case. Members of the Green family, who own this chain of hobby and craft stores, won their case in court. The Obama administration could not force them to violate their faith and provide employer coverage for drugs and devices that they see as attacking a human being at his or her earliest stage of development.

These religious leaders knew there might be a backlash from members of Congress whose own “reproductive rights” agenda is more important to them than religious freedom for other Americans. The leaders felt a need to remind our lawmakers that the freedom to live by one's faith is Americans' first and most fundamental freedom, that Congress has always sought to protect people's conscience from being trampled when those in power disagree with their beliefs.

Events soon proved they were right to be concerned.

Two weeks after they pleaded with Congress to maintain our religious freedom, a majority of the Senate – including our own Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana – voted to move forward with legislation to take that freedom away.

Supporters call this bill the “Protect Women's Health From Corporate Interference Act” (S. 2578). They say it will reverse the Hobby Lobby decision, so for-profit corporations cannot withhold contraceptive coverage from their female employees on religious grounds.

In reality, the bill is much more sweeping.

It states that when the federal government, by law or regulation, decides to mandate any item in health plans nationwide, no one will have a right to object that it violates their religious freedom. The government's mandate will override “any other provision of federal law” that stands in the way – whether that law protects for-profit employers, non-profit charitable organizations like the Little Sisters of the Poor, religious educational institutions like the University of Notre Dame, insurers, employees or individual women purchasing a health plan for their families on our state health exchange.

Just as contraceptives have been mandated as a “preventive service” to avert unintended pregnancies, coverage for all abortions, including late-term abortions, could be mandated to avoid unwanted live births – and any federal law protecting conscience rights on abortion would be null and void, not just for “corporations” but for everyone involved.

For the Green family and for many other believers, this dispute was already about abortion.

The Greens objected to only four of the 20 birth control methods the administration has mandated because they believe these methods can take the life of a new human being after fertilization. In their eyes, and in the teaching of the Catholic Church as well, taking human life at that early stage is an abortion.

But under this bill, this or a future administration could decide that even surgical abortion is just another “specific item” that no employer health plan can refuse to support.

Some have claimed that the current HHS mandate is about a “right” to contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs. But as the University of Notre Dame said in its complaint to a federal court last year, any such alleged right “does not authorize the Government to require Notre Dame to facilitate and appear to endorse practices that Catholic doctrine considers morally wrong.”

Last month the Senate narrowly failed to achieve the 60 votes needed to take up S. 2578. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid invoked a procedural rule to ensure that it can be brought up again, any time after the Senate resumes its session in September.

In the meantime, I hope Donnelly and others who voted for this extreme legislation will realize how radically it departs from our nation's traditions on respect for the conscientious beliefs of all Americans. We need more respect for religious freedom in our nation, not less.

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