Bipartisan warning issued over religious freedom threats in health care

Rep Dan Lipinski CNA US Catholic News 2 13 12 Rep. Dan Lipinski.

Members of the Congressional Values Action Team of the House of Representatives gathered at a special order to voice their concerns over threats to religious freedom posed by the recent health care overhaul.

Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) told Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) on June 14, that "religious freedom is our first freedom, as stated right there in the First Amendment."

"This is not just freedom to worship as we hear it defined now in many ways. It is not just freedom to worship in our own homes, in our churches, synagogues, mosques, temples. It is freedom to practice and live out religious faith here in America."

The congressman stressed that "this is not just a Catholic issue," nor is it "just a Republican issue."

"This is an issue for all Americans," he said. "It's an American issue."

The special order, "Conscience and Religious Freedom" organized by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R- Neb.), addressed threats to religious liberty posed by the Affordable Care Act, particularly the controversial HHS mandate, which requires employers – including religious charities, hospitals, and schools – to offer health insurance plans covering contraception, sterilization and some early abortion drugs. 

Fortenberry explained that the opposition to this mandate "is not about politics. It's not about partisanship. It's about principle."

"Americans who cannot in good conscience comply with this mandate will now be subject to ruinous fines if they do not obey – simply for exercising their First Amendment rights, exercising their religious freedom, exercising the deeper philosophical principle of the rights of conscience as rightly exercised by reasonable persons doing what they believe to be right, what they believe to be good, what they believe to be just."

"We have lost our collective sense of respect for divergent views," he warned, commenting on the shift in views leading to the mandate. "We have lost our sense that the government must protect that sacred right of conscience and not coerce her citizens into doing something that they fundamentally believe is unjust or wrong."

He said that while "the HHS mandate is arguably a small component of the 2010 health care law, it does bring us face-to-face with a stark new reality here in Washington that we fervently hope will not become the new normal in America."

Fortenberry noted that the mandate "is also a form of discrimination" and that it "primarily targets people in faith communities, the very people who have been the backstop of compassionate care for the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized in our society today."

The congressman also voiced his concern over recent scandals that have unveiled the targeting of certain non-profit organizations by the IRS "because of their religious or philosophical or political leanings." He noted that the "IRS is the very agency set to implement the new health care law" as it applies to religious organizations that object to the mandate.

"What kind of nation will we be when the IRS decides who gets to assemble, when the Department of Justice decides who reports the news, and when HHS decides what religious beliefs are worthy of First Amendment protection?" asked Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), also commenting on the recent public controversies.

He emphasized that religious freedom "means that the government does not get to tell you to violate your beliefs."

"I'm not a Catholic. I'm not a Mennonite," Pitts emphasized. "We don't share the same ideas about what is morally objectionable on everything, but I do not believe that my ideals should be forced on them."

Lipinski – who is Catholic – reminded attendees that freedom "is what our country was founded on," and that the U.S. Bishops will host a "Fortnight for Freedom to pray, educate, and act for religious freedom" from June 21 through July 4.

"We need to uphold that freedom, and the HHS mandate, amongst other efforts, other things that have been done by the Federal Government, unfortunately, in recent years has really run counter to freedom," he said.

"Mr. Speaker, I want Americans to understand what this is about," Lipinski said, explaining that at its core, the issue is "not about birth control or abortion."

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"It's about freedom," he said. "It's about taking away Americans' freedom, requiring them to participate in activities that violate their conscience."

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