- - Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Cathy Cenzon-DeCarlo still remembers the gruesome images of the dismembered body of the child whose abortion she was forced to observe. Ms. Cenzon-DeCarlo, a nurse at a hospital in New York City, was required by her employer to assist in the abortion of a 22-week preborn baby. The hospital knew her long-standing opposition to abortion, yet threatened her job and her nursing license if she did not take part.

There have been past problems with conscience protections for health care workers, such as that faced by Ms. Cenzon-DeCarlo, but those protections have been vastly eroded under “Obamacare.” Moreover, the problems are spreading. Under Obamacare and the administration’s Health and Human Services mandate, individuals, charities and businesses that purchase health insurance are being forced to buy coverage that includes drugs that may destroy human life and other services to which they have deep moral objections.

Hobby Lobby, a nationwide arts and crafts retailer that insures 13,000 individuals, could face crushing fines of $1.3 million a day under the Obama administration mandate. While the owners of Hobby Lobby have offered employee health insurance that covers contraceptives, they have a strong conviction against providing or paying for emergency contraception, like the so-called “morning-after” pill. The government is now forcing this business to choose between deeply held beliefs and providing benefits to their employees.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” James Madison, who wrote the First Amendment, said, “Conscience is the most sacred of all property.” Thomas Jefferson explained, “No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority.”

I agree wholeheartedly with the Founding Fathers, and that’s why I joined Rep. Diane Black, Tennessee Republican, and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, Nebraska Republican, last week in introducing the Health Care Conscience Rights Act in the House of Representatives. This bill rests on a fundamental belief that our government must not force people to violate their religious and moral beliefs. The conscience is sacred, and federal law ought to protect it.

Here are the three key provisions of the Health Care Conscience Rights Act: (1) It amends Obamacare to ensure that individuals or employers with moral or religious objections are not forced to buy health insurance that includes coverage of services, including sterilization, contraceptives or drugs that may take the life of the unborn; (2) it amends current law to ensure that any government agency that receives federal funds cannot force pro-life health care workers to be complicit in abortion or discriminate against them for being pro-life; and (3) it allows people who have been discriminated against, such as Ms. Cenzon-DeCarlo, to be able to pursue court action to remedy the violation of their constitutional rights.

In August 2011, as a follow-up to Obamacare, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a rule requiring that all health insurance plans include coverage for sterilization and contraceptives, including the “morning-after” and “week-after” pills, drugs which may lead to the destruction of a human embryo, nascent human life.

The Obama administration clearly knew it was treading on thin ice with its mandate, as evidenced by the narrow, carved-out exemptions that it created in an attempt to quell the outcry over its violation of people’s First Amendment rights. Instead of fixing the problem, with its announcement of a “compromise” on Feb. 1, the administration merely reissued a murky and confusing rule that now has the federal government judging which religious groups are religious enough to qualify for an exemption. The original assault on religious liberty has now been compounded by an administration that has elevated its mandate over the deeply held beliefs of its citizenry.

An attack on the First Amendment is an attack on all Americans. Whether or not an individual identifies with a religious group, deeply held beliefs should be protected by the government. As George Washington said, the law should “always be extensively accommodated” to the “conscientious scruples” of people. People’s conscience beliefs should not be forced to bend to the law.

The Health Care Conscience Rights Act ensures the enforcement of basic First Amendment protections, and it deserves the full attention of Congress. The Obama administration’s unprecedented attacks on religious freedom must be stopped, and nothing short of a full exemption from its Health and Human Services mandate for both nonprofit and for-profit entities will satisfy the demands of the Constitution and common sense.

Rep. John Fleming, a physician, is a Louisiana Republican.