Friday, March 2, 2012

Church plans to redouble effort for law to protect religious conscience

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WASHINGTON (CNS) -- U.S. church leaders pledged to redouble efforts to support religious freedom after the Senate voted to table the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act March 1.

Introduced as an amendment to a highway funding bill, the bill was tabled by a 51-48 vote, effectively killing it.

Known as the Blunt amendment, so-named because its chief sponsor was Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the bill was defeated largely along party lines. It drew the support of three Democratic senators, Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine was the lone Republican to vote against the measure.

Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., chairman of the U.S. bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, said in a statement after the vote that the bishops will continue their strong defense of conscience rights for all people.

"The need to defend citizens' rights of conscience is the most critical issue before our country right now," Bishop Lori said. "We will continue our defense of conscience rights through all available legal means. Religious freedom is at the heart of democracy and rooted in the dignity of every human person.

"We will not rest until the protection of conscience rights is restored and the First Amendment is returned to its place of respect in the Bill of Rights," the statement continued.

Bishop Lori also expressed his gratitude to Blunt and the other senators for their vote in favor of the amendment.

"We will build on this base of support as we pursue legislation in the House of Representatives, urge the administration to change its course on this issue, and explore our legal rights under the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act."

Blunt proposed the bill Feb. 9 amid controversy surrounding rules from the Department of Health and Human Services under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that required all employers to provide coverage for contraception and sterilization services in any health insurance plan. After a three-week national debate, the White House Feb. 10 revised the rules to shift the payment of contraception and sterilization coverage from religious employers to health insurance companies for any women who sought such services.

The bishops and other religious leaders opposed the change as well, saying they still consider it an intrusion on religious liberty.

The bishops subsequently called for conscience protections to be enacted into law.

The Blunt amendment allowed church-affiliated organizations, including Catholic charities, hospitals, schools and universities, to opt out of such coverage and would have extended exemptions to any nonreligious employer with a moral objection to such coverage.

Under the amendment, any employer also would have been allowed to refuse to cover any other preventive health care procedures required under the rule if they held a moral or religious objection.

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