Election: Keeping conscience protection in forefront

August 16, 2016

Our nation faces many pressing political and social decisions during this election season. While receiving significantly less media coverage than other current issues, matters of conscience protection remain of critical importance to Catholics. This is especially true in the helping professions where Catholics have traditionally played a leading role, including healthcare, education and charitable work. 

The following are just a few examples of recent legislative and judicial efforts that threaten conscience rights of Catholics and other religious groups in these arenas:

In healthcare
• The U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS) upheld a California Insurance Commission determination requiring all health plans in the state to cover elective abortions (including those provided by faith-based institutions such as Catholic parishes). The New York State Insurance Commission subsequently voiced its intention to impose a similar requirement on all health plans in that state. (June 2016)

• U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear appeals by a Washington pharmacist relating to his conscience rights. The lower Circuit Court upheld a state law requiring all pharmacists to stock and distribute contraceptives and abortifacients over any conscience objections raised by the pharmacist. (June 2016)

• The Illinois legislature passed measures requiring pro-life healthcare providers to give all patients information about abortion and contraception, even where not requested by the patient. If a patient does request these measures, the provider is legally obligated to the refer her to someone she knows that will provide the requested contraceptives and/or abortion. (June 2016)

• A court in Belgium determined a Catholic nursing home had no “right to refuse euthanasia [to an elderly patient] on the basis of conscientious objection” and imposed a fine on the facility. The practice of euthanasia is now legal in five U.S. States and in Canada. (June 2016)

In education
• The federal “Transparency in Taxpayer Funded Discrimination Act” (TTFDA) would affect religious colleges and universities. Many religious colleges maintain only single-sex housing, assigned according to students’ biological sex based on a Christian anthropology of gender. According to the bill’s supporters, this practice, and others like it constitutes discrimination against LGBT students. The bill requires colleges seeking to follow their religious beliefs in organizing housing programs to inform potential and current students and donors of their ongoing “discriminatory” practices. (introduced April 2016)

• A California bill contains provisions similar to those outlined in the TTFDA, with the added provision that failure to comply would result in loss of certain state funding to religious-based institutions. (June 2016)

• A Canadian appeals court denied accreditation to a religiously-affiliated law school due to its policies prohibiting sexual relations outside of marriage and its support for traditional marriage. (June 2016)

In Catholic charitable institutions
• ACLU filed suit against the federal government for awarding grants to Catholic institutions to house and care for undocumented and unaccompanied minors. The ACLU claims the Catholic institutions’ policy of not referring minors for contraceptives or abortion violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. The suit would require religious institutions receiving federal monies to refer children for abortions and/or contraceptives at the child’s request. (June 2016)

As Catholics, we are called to serve those around us in many ways. For hundreds, if not thousands, of years, we have done so by caring for the poor and the sick and educating our young people to be of service in their communities. We must remain vigilant to protect, not only our freedom to worship, but our freedom to exercise our religious beliefs as well. †

Julie Fritsch is the director of the Office of Pro-Life Activities.