(CNSNews.com) - The Catholic bishops of the United States are asking the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to do something concrete and effective--rather than merely symbolic—to repeal a regulation the administration has issued under Obamacare that will force Catholics and other Christians to act against their faith in purchasing or providing health-care plans that cover sterilizations, contraceptives, and abortion-inducing drugs.
Last June, the bishops unanimously declared this regulation an “unjust and illegal mandate.” Since then, dozens of Catholic and Protestant private business owners, schools and non-profit organizations have sued the administration seeking to fully or partially overturn the regulation, arguing it violates their First-Amendment right to free exercise of religion.
The regulation, however, is beginning to take effect now, and pending lawsuits could take years to reach the Supreme Court--where it is uncertain how they would be decided.
Given the gravity and immediacy of the issue, the bishops are asking Congress to act now by incorporating language repealing the regulation into “must-pass” legislation.
“Providers of health care, as well as those who offer or purchase insurance, should not face an unacceptable choice between preserving their religious and moral integrity or participating in our health care system,” Cardinal Sean O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, said in a March 8 letter sent to every member of the House.
“Therefore,” said Cardinal O’Malley, who chairs the bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, “I urge you to support H.R. 940, and to help incorporate its policy into upcoming ‘must-pass’ legislation.”
H.R. 940 would permanently negate Obamacare’s sterilization-contraception-abortifacient regulation. It would do this by ensuring that no individual worker, private for-profit business, hospital, school, charity or other form of non-profit enterprise could be forced to buy or provide a health-care plan that included coverage for abortion or any other item or service to which the individual or organization had a moral or religious objection.
It would also protect health-care workers from being discriminated against if they decline to participate in abortions or abortion-related services.
Cardinal O’Malley’s March 8 letter followed a letter Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore had sent to members of Congress on Feb. 15 asking them to add language to “the upcoming legislative proposals to fund the federal government” that (like H.R. 940) would nullify the sterilization-contraception-abortifacient mandate and protect the conscience rights of health-care workers. Archbishop Lori chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.
On March 6, the House Republican leadership called an initial floor vote on their version of the continuing resolution (CR) needed to fund the government through the rest of this fiscal year after the current CR expires on March 27. This House leadership CR did not include the language that Archbishop Lori requested. Instead, it permitted full funding of the sterilization-contraception-abortifacient mandate.
By contrast, the Republican leaders’ CR did prohibit the Obama administration from spending money on foreign-made ball bearings.
The Senate is expected to vote as early as Tuesday on its own version of the CR, which differs from the House version. Because the Senate version differs, the House must take the CR up again. Before the CR can become law, both houses must approve the same version.
As a result, there are now two pieces of legislation that Congress must deal with this fiscal year that belong in the “must pass” category cited by Cardinal O’Malley: (1) the CR to keep the government funded past March 27, and (2) the bill that will be needed to lift the limit on the federal debt after the current suspension of the debt limit expires on May 18.
If the Republican-controlled House were to agree to the request of the Catholic bishops and move this week to include H.R. 940 in the “must-pass” CR, the Democrat-controlled Senate and President Obama would have a choice to make. They could choose to preserve the administration’s power to force Catholics and other Christians to act against their faith, reject the House-passed CR, and thus risk a shut down of the federal government. Or they could choose to approve a House-passed CR incorporating H.R. 940 and permanently surrender the administration’s regulatory ambition to force Catholics and other Christians to buy and provide health-care plans that cover sterilizations, contraception and abortion-inducing drugs.
If, instead, the Republican-controlled House fulfilled the Catholic bishops’ request by including H.R. 940 in a bill to lift the debt limit, the Democrat-controlled Senate and President Obama would face a similar choice. In this case, it would be between preserving the administration’s regulation forcing Catholics and other Christians to act against their faith and preserving the administration’s authority to continue borrowing money to pay the expenses the government is now running in excess of its revenues.
The Senate and President Obama will never face either of these choices, however, if House Speaker John Boehner decides to spare them by spurning the request of the Catholic bishops and declining to include H.R. 940 in “must-pass” legislation.
In that case, the Republican-majority House would itself pass legislation effectively funding and permitting the Obama administration’s regulation forcing Catholics and other Christians to act against their faith.
On Monday, March 18, CNSNews.com emailed and voice-messaged Boehner Spokesman Michael Steel to see what Boehner’s choice was: Would he attach H.R. 940 to “must-pass” legislation as Cardinal O’Malley asked? (CNSNews.com also emailed Steel PDF copies of both Archbishop Lori’s and Cardinal O’Malley’s letters so they would have copies of them to reference while considering the question.)
“A reporter from CNS asked essentially the same question two weeks ago at Boehner’s press conference. The response is below,” Steel responded by email.
However, as per the transcript Steel provided in his email, CNSNews.com reporter Matt Cover did not ask the speaker whether he intended to incorporate H.R. 940 into “must-pass” legislation as requested by the Catholic bishops.
Cover asked this more general question: “Are there any provisions that will curtail any aspects of Obamacare that you intend to attach to any mustpass legislation in this Congress? And if so, what are they?”
According to the transcript provided by Steel, Boehner answered: “The House believes that Obamacare will drive up the cost of health insurance in America and make it more difficult for employers to provide it. We have voted several times to defund Obamacare; I am sure we will again this year.
“There are other provisions in Obamacare that are having an effect on employers today,” Boehner continued. “You know, the employer mandate starts in January, but there are lookback procedures in the law that are affecting the way employers hire their staff today.
“And so there are a lot of effects of Obamacare that we're already starting to see,” Boehner said. “And the House, I expect, will have extensive oversight hearings on the devastating impact of this law on the American people.”
At that press briefing, CNSNews.com followed up: “Will those efforts go on the mustpass bills? Will those efforts that try to defund it again, will they go on like a mustpass piece of legislation?”
“We will take a look at each of these opportunities when we get there,” Boehner responded.
Because this exchange was not responsive to CNSNews.com's specific question of whether Boehner would agree to the request of the Catholic bishops to incorporate H.R. 940 into “must-pass” legislation, CNSNews.com put the question to Boehner a second time on Monday via an email to Steel.
This time, Steel did not respond.
A year ago, Boehner went to the well of the House, described the regulation in question as an attack on religious freedom, and vowed that Congress would not permit it to stand.
“This rule," said Boehner, "would require faith-based employers, including Catholic charities, schools, universities and hospitals, to provide services they believe are immoral. Those services include sterilization, abortion-inducing drugs and devices, and contraception.”
"If the president does not reverse the department's attack on religious freedom, then the Congress, acting on behalf of the American people and the Constitution that we are sworn to uphold and defend, must,” said the speaker.
"This attack by the federal government on religious freedom in our country must not stand and will not stand,” said Boehner.
As of today, the regulation does stand. But John Boehner is not saying where he stands on the request of the Catholic bishops that his House act now to concretely--not symbolically or rhetorically--protect the religious liberty of Christians who do not want to be forced by the federal government to act against their faith.