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Religious liberty essential to our nation

POSTED: February 8, 2012 7:00 a.m.

Our nation has a long legacy of defending an individual’s religious freedoms. James Madison, the Father of our nation’s Constitution and the author of the Bill of Rights, once wrote that “conscience is the most sacred of all property.” Since our nation’s earliest days, the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently affirmed our First Amendment right to exercise our religious beliefs freely. But today, recent decisions by the Obama Administration are threatening Americans’ religious liberty.

This past summer, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) exercised its authority under the new health care reform law to require that most employee-provided health insurance plans cover contraception, sterilization, and abortion inducing drugs. This new mandate contains a “religious employer” exemption, but the exemption is so narrow that many religiously-affiliated hospitals, educational institutions, and charities do not meet the requirements. After releasing this rule, HHS heard from hundreds of thousands of Americans who were opposed to the regulation and the narrow scope of its exemption. However, despite the concerns of so many, HHS announced last month that it would not change the mandate for non-profit religious employers, but only extend to next year the deadline for compliance.

Extending the deadline does not change what is at stake. Faith-based groups who object to this requirement on moral grounds are now being forced to choose between offering services that violate their religious beliefs or eliminating their employees’ health coverage. If faith-based groups stop offering their employees health coverage to avoid violating their faith, many Americans will lose their current health care coverage simply because that coverage does not fall within the Administration’s preferred policy parameters. Targeting religious beliefs in this manner erodes the principle of religious liberty upon which our country was founded.

Last October, I joined many of my Senate colleagues in requesting that HHS Secretary Sebelius reconsider this regulation and instead follow our nation’s tradition of respecting religious liberty. Additionally, in September I sponsored S. 1467, the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, legislation thatwould protect health care providers and employers from being forced to pay for products and services under the new health care law that violate their ethical values.

Our federal government should not force religious groups to betray their fundamental beliefs. Current conscience protections permit some religious groups to abstain from participating in war or working on religious holy days, and others to be exempt from the health care law’s individual mandate to purchase a certain level of health insurance as defined by the federal government. In the recently decided case Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church v. EEOC, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the government cannot interfere with “the internal governance of the church” in ministerial hiring decisions. Similarly, religious groups should not be forced to offer insurance plans to their employees that violate their fundamental beliefs.

The threat to religious liberty caused by this unprecedented overreach by the federal government should be of concern for all Americans – whether or not they ascribe to a particular faith. HHS’ new mandate could force religiously-affiliated organizations to close or drastically curtail services to those in need.

These organizations play a vital role in serving communities in Kansas and across our country. If this mandate stands, many non-profit hospitals, soup kitchens, family shelters, and schools in Kansas will be forced to choose between violating the law or going against their religious beliefs. These organizations will have to either pay for services they consider immoral, face an ongoing series of fines for not complying, or limit the services they provide in their communities. Individuals of all ages, beliefs, and backgrounds who depend on these institutions will have to seek care elsewhere.

What is most concerning is this: if the government can compel an individual or group to violate one’s “sacred” conscience, then there is no limit to government power. All of our cherished constitutional rights would be subject to the whims of the federal government and those in power. One group’s beliefs are being trampled today; another’s might be tomorrow. Our nation’s constitutional rights and freedoms are essential to who we are as Americans, and our commitment to these precious rights must be protected at every turn.

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