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Ms. AYOTTE. I thank the Senator. I appreciate the opportunity to be here to rise in support of the pending amendment that is based upon, as Senator Blunt mentioned, a piece of legislation that was introduced on a bipartisan basis earlier in the year called the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, which I was proud to cosponsor.
During the past few weeks, we have heard certainly impassioned arguments from both sides of the aisle about this issue. Certainly, it has been a robust and important exchange of views, which I have appreciated. However, I think it is regrettable that similar to so much else that happens around here, this issue has been used as an election-year tactic to score political points, and in some cases there have been the facts of what this amendment and our bill hope to accomplish have been supplanted by mischaracterizations and distortions.
That is unfortunate because what we are here to talk about is incredibly important. This is a fundamental matter of religious freedom and the proper role of our Federal Government. It is about who we are as Americans and renewing our commitment to the principles upon which this Nation was founded.
This debate comes down to the legacy left behind by our Founding Fathers and over 200 years of American history. We have a choice between being responsible stewards of their legacy, as reflected in the first amendment to the Constitution, or allowing the Federal Government to interfere in religious life in an unprecedented way. The first amendment to the Constitution starts with: ``Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.''
Just last month, we saw our Supreme Court unanimously uphold, under the establishment and free exercise clauses of our Constitution, a ruling in the Hosanna-Tabor case that the Federal Government may not infringe on the rights of religious institutions in their hiring practices. To do so, they ruled on a unanimous basis, would interfere with the internal governance of the church.
Protecting religious freedom and conscience rights has in the past been, as was mentioned here, a bipartisan issue. No less than Ted Kennedy himself, a liberal icon of the Senate, wrote in 2009 to the Pope: ``I believe in a conscience protection for Catholics in the health care field and will continue to advocate for it.''
Senator Kennedy had previously pushed for the inclusion of conscience protections in legislation he proposed in 1997 as well as in his Affordable Health Care for all Americans Act proposed in 1995. These are the same protections our amendment seeks to restore.
In 1994, provisions aimed at protecting conscience rights were included in the recommendations made by the Task Force on National Health Care Reform, led by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton. In 1993, when President Bill Clinton signed the bipartisan Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law, he said: ``The government should be held to a very high level of proof before it interferes with someone's free exercise of religion.''
Protecting religious freedoms was once an issue that bound Americans together. It certainly is a very important issue as we take the oath of office here to uphold the Constitution of the United States. I believe this effort which is so fundamental to our national character must bring us together once more on a bipartisan basis.
I would like to make one very important point about this amendment. Unfortunately, many have tried to characterize this amendment as denying women access to contraception. That is a red herring, and it is false. We are talking about government mandates that are interfering with conscience protections that have long been engrained in our law.
To be clear, women had access to these services before the President passed the Affordable Care Act, and after this amendment would be passed, they would still have access to these important services. Contrary to what some of my friends on the other side of the aisle have asserted, this measure simply allows health care providers and companies to have the same conscience rights they had before the President's health care bill took effect.
We are not breaking any new ground. In fact, we are respecting what is contained within our first amendment to the Constitution and what has long been a bipartisan effort to respect the conscience rights of all Americans, whatever their religious views are.
This vote goes to the heart of who we are. If we allow the government to dictate the coverage and plans paid for by religious institutions, that is the first step down a slippery slope. When religious liberty has been threatened in the past, Members of both sides of the aisle of Congress have taken action to preserve our country's cherished freedoms. We must do so again now or risk compromising a foundational American principle.
I hope my colleagues on both sides of the aisle will give this amendment careful consideration and appreciate that it is an amendment that will respect the conscience rights of all religions and will certainly not deny women access to services they need and deserve.
I appreciate the Senator having me here today. I hope my colleagues will support this important amendment.
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