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Religious Freedom Impasse Intensifies

The Obama Administration’s recent decision rejecting religious freedom protections for many faith-based organizations under the 2010 health care overhaul has stirred a fervent response from many Members of Congress.

On Monday, Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) called on Attorney General Eric Holder to intervene against the “unlawful” action of the U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Department in denying an adequate religious exemption to the universal contraceptive coverage requirement of The 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, dubbed by critics as "Obamacare.” Senator Portman’s detailed letter explains point by point how HHS violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993.  Specifically, he notes this ruling’s coercive nature against religious freedom:  “HHS intends to fine religious employers approximately $2,000 per employee — unless they subsidize medical services that violate the tenets of their faith…. Considering that the Supreme Court has found a substantial burden based on a fine as little as $5, the burden imposed by the HHS mandate is plainly substantial.” 

As the week progressed, Republican leaders of the Senate and the House challenged the constitutionality of the HHS rule. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell stated:

Make no mistake: the Obama Administration’s decision to force religious hospitals, charities, and schools to comply with a mandate that violates their religious views is abhorrent to the foundational principles of our nation.  No one in the United States of America should ever be compelled by their government to choose between violating their religious beliefs or be penalized for refusing. Yet that’s precisely what this mandate would do.

He and Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) attempted to raise relevant conscience protection legislation on the Senate Floor; however, they were obstructed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).  Senator McConnell responded, “Our founders believed so strongly that the government should neither establish a religion, nor prevent its free exercise that they listed it as the very first item in the Bill of Rights…. I never thought I’d see the day when the elected representatives of the people of this country would be blocked by a majority party in Congress to even express their support for it.”

In addition, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) took to the House Floor to declare, “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 we are sworn to uphold and defend, must.” He indicated that the House Energy & Commerce Committee would begin exploring legislative remedies to correct the President’s overreach. 

  • Read HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’s statement on this rule and comments by Senate Democrats supporting it.
  • Read Senator Rob Portman’s letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, and watch the Floor speeches of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner.

By Aaron Mercer, Vice President Government Relations