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We Must Protect Conscience Rights


Location: Unknown

By Representative Adrian Smith

Religious liberty is America's first and founding principle. Our nation was built and settled by generations of people who fled the tyranny and religious oppression of their homelands. Our Founders sought to preserve religious liberty by ensuring this nation protected against the establishment of any law impeding the free exercise of one's religious beliefs. This principle is enshrined in the First Amendment of our Constitution which reads in part, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Religious freedom is the basis for what is known as conscience rights -- that no one, including the government, can force you to do something you find morally objectionable. No one should be forced to choose between their deeply held beliefs and their livelihood. This principle is an integral and critical aspect of a healthy -- and free -- society. President Obama echoed this sentiment when he gave the 2009 commencement address at the University of Notre Dame. He asserted the need to "honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause" for his health care law.

Recently, however, the Obama Administration has begun implementing a controversial mandate as a part of the new health care law which would force religious organizations to violate their beliefs. This new rule from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) would force schools, hospitals, and even charities which offer health insurance to their employees to cover the full cost of contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortion-inducing drugs - even when it is a clear violation of their conscience rights. Simply put, this is wrong.

The bipartisan outcry across the country reflects the importance of this issue. For this reason, I recently joined a bipartisan group of 153 Members of Congress on a letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius asking her to suspend the rule until HHS can ensure both employers and individuals are afforded their Constitutionally-protected conscience rights. Additionally, I have cosponsored the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act (H.R. 1179). This commonsense bill was introduced by Nebraska's First District Congressman, Jeff Fortenberry, and has 220 bipartisan cosponsors.

Nebraskans overwhelmingly support repealing this mandate, and I am pleased our state has joined six others in challenging the Administration on this critical issue. Doing so is imperative for a number of reasons. Setting the precedent of First Amendment violations by the federal government will make further Constitutional overreaches routine. If the rights of some are not protected, the rights of all are in danger. Additionally, many Americans could suffer if these affected organizations choose to shut their doors, most regrettably on those who already are suffering in this difficult economy. Religious organizations affected by this mandate include charities, hospitals, schools, shelters, and other groups which do a tremendous amount of good work for those who are in need.

The White House has sought to quell the controversy by announcing it would "accommodate" the concerns of faith-based organizations by instead applying this mandate to insurance companies rather than the organizations themselves. But despite President Obama's actions, this mandate continues to intrude on the Constitutionally-protected right to practice one's religion freely because these organizations are still required to purchase health insurance under the new health care law -- the very industry which was just mandated to provide these contraceptive services free of charge.

The President has called this a compromise, but forcing people of faith to turn their backs on their deeply held beliefs is hardly a bargain. The one thing you cannot compromise is your conscience. The only way to resolve this controversy is to reverse the mandate and preserve the natural rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. In America, government yields to the Constitution -- not the other way around.

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