“YES” on the Conscience Protection Act of 2016 (S. 304)

On Wednesday, the House is scheduled to vote on the Conscience Protection Act of 2016 (S. 304), initially introduced by Rep. John Fleming (R-LA) 87% as H.R. 4828. This bill is a critical and timely response to a decision by California’s Department of Managed Health Care which forces all health plans under their jurisdiction to cover elective abortions for any reason, including late term abortions and sex-selective abortions. The Department is even forcing plans provided by churches and other religious organizations to cover these life-ending procedures, despite their religious convictions.

This California edict, first issued in 2014, is a blatant violation of current federal law, known as the Weldon and Hyde amendments, which prohibit states receiving taxpayer funds under federal law from discriminating against health insurance plans that don’t cover abortion. Even more troubling, than California’s disregard of these protections, however, is the Obama Administration’s refusal to enforce them. 

The Daily Signal reports:

The Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Health and Human Services sent a response letter to several formal complaints filed by Life Legal Defense Foundation and Alliance Defending Freedom over the California Department of Managed Health Care’s decision to force all employers to cover elective abortions.

“In the letter, the Obama administration dismissed the ‘right of conscience’ complaints after concluding that California’s law does not violate federal law…”

But, as Casey Mattox, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, responded:

“The administration’s refusal to enforce [the Weldon Amendment] continues its pattern of enforcing laws it wants to enforce, refusing to enforce others, and inventing new interpretations of others out of whole cloth.” 

In order to ensure the continued First Amendment rights of millions in California, and for those in the rest of the United States, Fleming and Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-MO) 70% introduced the Conscience Protection Act (CPA). CPA would codify the Weldon and Hyde amendments into a permanent prohibition on federal, state, and local governments from penalizing or discriminating against a health care provider who refuses to provide abortion coverage. Additionally, it would provide two avenues for seeking recourse against any such governmental discrimination (such as the California case). Under CPA, threatened or penalized institutions like churches or pro-life healthcare providers could file a complaint with the U.S. Health and Human Services, Office for Civil Rights and/or file a civil suit in court.

In a statement released after introducing the bill, lead sponsor Rep. Fleming said:

“As a family practice physician for over 30 years, I know for a fact that doctors and nurses are dedicated medical professionals uniquely qualified to assess the health and wellness needs of their patients. There is no room in the clinic for government discrimination, for Big Brother to force a health care provider to participate, in any way, in an abortion. My legislation offers common sense conscience protections for the front line of the medical profession. From clinician to hospital, from an HMO to insurance coverage, and from a student health plan to a physician in training, [S. 304] protects against forced participation in abortions and provides recourse for victims facing discrimination.”

As threats rise across our country, Congress should advance legislation preserving our inalienable rights to the most basic of freedoms: the free exercise of religion and a free conscience. Both the House and Senate should act swiftly to pass the Conscience Protection Act, and also Rep. Raul Labrador's (R-ID) 91% First Amendment Defense Act (H.R. 2802). 

While bill that is being voted on today is Rep. Fleming and Rep. Hartzler’s bill, it was Rep. Diane Black (R-TN) 86% that offered their bill text as a substitute amendment to S. 304, which will enable the Senate to consider the bill in a more timely fashion.

Regardless of anyone’s personal opinion about abortion, the government should never be able to force pro-life organizations or healthcare providers to cover or perform abortions in violation of their conscience or religious beliefs. CPA will prevent this coercion from continuing to occur while also ensuring citizens and organizations the right to sue when their freedoms are threatened.

Heritage Action supports the Conscience Protection Act of 2016 (S. 304) and will include it as a key vote on our legislative scorecard.