Lawmakers Say Congress Needs to Protect Institutional Conscience

Speakers at a policy summit in Washington Jan. 13 addressed the issue of protecting institutional conscience as it pertains to adoption, marriage and abortion.

U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pennsylvania, discussed conscience protections for religious and other adoption agencies, which is the aim of the Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act, known as H.R. 5825.

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The bill would prohibit the federal government, and any state that receives federal funding for any program providing child welfare services, from "discriminating or taking an adverse action against a child welfare service provider that declines" to provide services that contradict their moral beliefs.

"Because of our religious beliefs, we are being told that we cannot participate" in providing services, said Kelly, a Catholic, at the Heritage Action Conservative Policy Summit. "I don't believe that San Francisco, Illinois or Washington, D.C., has the right to tell your organization that you cannot participate in this. ... Nobody is going to exclude us."

The act is meant to protect the rights of institutions such as Catholic adoption agencies that would be forced to either provide adoption services that conflict with their moral views or close their doors, as was the case for agencies in Massachusetts and California in 2006 and Illinois in 2011.

Catholic Charities in San Francisco and Boston and throughout Illinois stopped adoption placements when laws required equal treatment of applicants in same-sex relationships. Catholic teaching opposes the adoption of children by same-sex couples.

Last July, the chairmen of three committees of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said they supported the bill: San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone, Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage; Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty; and Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski, Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

Also speaking at the policy summit was U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, who discussed the Marriage and Religious Freedom Act, or H.R. 3133, a measure he said he will sponsor in the new congressional session.

It would prohibit any adverse action -- such as revoking tax exemption or denying a federal contract -- toward those who believe marriage is meant to be a binding union of one man and one woman and/or that "sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage." According to Labrador, the act is meant to protect individuals, organizations and corporations holding traditional views on marriage from what he calls a "climate of intolerance and intimidation."

Some have raised concerns that church-run facilities could lose their tax-exempt status, for example, if they refused to accommodate a wedding reception for a same-sex couple able to legally marry.

"No group should be denied tax exemption based on their view that marriage is meant to be between one man and one woman or that sex is meant to happen within marriage," he said, adding that "the protection of conscience does not impose on anyone's freedom. ... People should be free to think and speak and tax codes should not be used to intimidate" people who hold any specific worldview.

Labrador is the first Mormon to represent Idaho's 1st Congressional District.

The final U.S. House member to speak was Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, a Catholic and co-chair of the Bipartisan Congressional Pro-Life Caucus. He used his time at the podium to discuss what he sees as the Affordable Care Act's violations of institutional and professional conscience.

"The pro-life promises made at the eleventh hour in order to pass the act were lies ... every single (insurance) plan in my state of New Jersey pays for abortion on demand and that model is being imitated in several other states," he said.

Last September, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office released a report on an audit conducted by the agency to assess abortion coverage in plans across the country.

The GAO found that 1,036 federal health care exchange plans covered elective abortion. The agency also found that separate billing of the abortion surcharge -- required by the Affordable Care Act -- is not being enforced and the abortion-funding premium is again in 2015 being illegally rolled into the total plan cost.

Smith stated that the Obama administration's promise to prevent such procedures as abortion and sterilization being covered in contradiction to some medical professionals' and institutions' moral judgment is "being replicated year in and year out ... the idea of coercion has always been a part of the pro-abortion movement."

Smith also talked about a growing cultural shift he sees as a boon to the pro-life movement.

"People are waking up; the culture of denial is being replaced with a culture of enlightenment" on issues such as moral conscience, fetal pain and respect for human dignity, he said.

Issues of institutional conscience are going to play a large role in the new congressional session, according to the Heritage Foundation's Ryan Anderson.

"Our first freedom is the right of religious liberty. And yet, repeatedly, over recent years we have seen the government violate the religious liberty rights of citizens and the associations they form," he said. "Several good pieces of legislation would protect citizens from government discrimination and violations of their religious liberty."

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