Conscience rights under threat in US

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Last week our nation celebrated the 240th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The founders who fought for and won our individual freedoms knew that each successive generation would have to work to preserve and protect the “sacred fire of liberty” from the encroachments of the state.

Ahead of the August recess, Americans are urging the House of Representatives to take up the task entrusted to them by the founders by voting on the Conscience Protection Act of 2016. Our first president, George Washington, called freedom of conscience “an inherent natural right.” His current successor, Barack Obama, does not seem to agree. Why else would his administration refuse to enforce the Weldon amendment, which bars federal funds from going to states that discriminate against those who object on moral or religious grounds to abortion?

{mosads}The administration’s failure to enforce the Weldon amendment tramples on the conscience rights of people across the country. In New York City, for example, nurse Cathy Cenzon-DeCarlo was forced by her employer to participate in a late-term abortion at 22 weeks, against her deeply held pro-life beliefs. Under threat of losing her job, Cathy had to assist with the gruesome procedure and was required to account for all of the baby’s body parts afterwards.

In a broader threat, the conscience rights of Californians are also under attack. Citizens of the Golden State are now subject to a state law requiring all health plans to cover abortion. Under the law, Californians cannot obtain health insurance that does not violate their conscience, because it is illegal for health insurers operating in the state to offer any insurance plans that don’t cover abortion. Churches, religious charities, employers and individuals must participate in and subsidize healthcare plans that pay for abortions or forgo health coverage altogether. For what public purpose should seminaries that educate celibate Catholic priests be required to buy health plans that cover abortion? The absurdity of this and other examples makes it clear that the only purpose of California’s action is to punish those who conscientiously object. 

The Conscience Protection Act, which has been led by Reps. John Fleming (R-La.), Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.), Diane Black (R-Tenn.) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) in the House and by Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) in the Senate, will remedy this outrageous abuse of state power by protecting the conscience rights of all Americans. These rights have until recently been upheld by both parties, at all levels of government. Even those who support Roe v. Wade have consistently agreed that Americans who object to abortion should not be forced to participate in it or subsidize its costs. That longstanding consensus is now under attack, making the need for legislative action urgent. 

The new law will make permanent the current protections for those who decline to perform, pay for, refer for or provide coverage for abortion. It also gives those who want to exercise their conscience rights a private right of action to enforce this law and other longstanding conscience laws on abortion. Both the House and the Senate should act swiftly to pass the Conscience Protection Act and send it to President Obama. The American people have a right to know where our current president and the candidates of both parties who are running to succeed him stand on this vital issue. 

What begins in California often spreads, and the Obama administration’s refusal to protect the conscience rights of Californians will likely embolden other states to similarly erode the religious liberties of their own citizens. In Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe claimed just last week that “religious liberty” is an oxymoron. A much greater Virginia statesman than he, James Madison, who wrote the Bill of Rights guaranteeing religious freedom and believed that freedom of conscience was the foundation and centerpiece of all civil liberties, must be spinning in his grave.

Dannenfelser is the president of Susan B. Anthony List, a national anti-abortion advocacy group made up of more than 465,000 members nationwide.

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