Feb 26 2012

St. Louis Post-Dispatch Op-ed: Blunt: Lift the contraception rules preserve liberty

This weekend, millions of church-going Catholics in St. Louis and across America will hear or read a letter from their bishop making clear that the Obama Administration's Feb. 10 announcement does nothing to change the serious threat to religious liberty created by new government mandates in health care.

I'm not Catholic, and this decision will impact Americans of all faiths, or of no faith, who believe in the Constitution. This is not about one group, one health care requirement, or one set of beliefs. It's about protecting Americans' fundamental religious freedom — a freedom that has been guaranteed for more than 220 years since the ratification of the Bill of Rights.

Just four months after he became president, George Washington assured the Quakers who were concerned about their religious liberties, "the laws may always be as extensively accommodated to them, as a due regard for the protection and essential interests of the nation may justify and permit." Months later, our country made an even greater commitment when it added the First Amendment to the Constitution.

And in 1809, Thomas Jefferson declared to the New London Methodists, "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."

Both Washington's and Jefferson's statements convey the conviction for religious freedom that has defined America for more than two centuries.

Meanwhile, the nation's courts continuously have recognized that faith-based institutions deserve special recognition and rights under the First Amendment. This precedent was reinforced last month by the Supreme Court's unanimous ruling that "ministerial" employees of faith-based institutions are not covered by federal hiring requirements as they relate to religious belief.

Unfortunately, the current administration has taken a very different approach to this fundamental freedom, most recently with the Department of Health and Human Services' misguided attempt to force insurance companies and employers to cover contraception and controversial abortion drugs.

This provision is a direct result of President Obama's deeply flawed health care law — the first federal health care law that doesn't honor religious beliefs.

This outlandish rule rightly was met with opposition from both sides of the aisle, and amid increasing pressure, President Obama announced a so-called compromise earlier this month that was nothing more than an accounting gimmick.

Instead of addressing Americans' very valid concerns, the president simply reissued the same rule it already had unveiled with a vague promise to protect faith communities from the cost of the regulation in the coming months.

What President Obama doesn't seem to understand is that this debate is not about cost. It's not about contraception. It's about the Constitution. It's about faith and who controls the religious views of faith-based institutions. Based on his statements and recent actions, it's clear that President Obama believes he should have that control. But our Constitution states otherwise.

Last August, I introduced, with Senator Ben Nelson from Nebraska, the "Respect for Rights of Conscience Act," a broad, bipartisan bill that has garnered 37 cosponsors in the Senate and support from all of the major organizations that are concerned about this issue.

Our bill protects health care providers and insurers from being forced to violate their principles to provide products and services under the new health care law, and it ensures that all Americans are protected against discrimination, penalty or exclusion from the health care market for exercising their rights of conscience and following religious beliefs.

I recently attempted to introduce this provision for an up-or-down vote in the Senate — an effort that was blocked by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who called the debate 'senseless" and urged Americans who are concerned about this issue to "calm down."

Americans don't need to calm down. This debate is fundamental to the very freedoms that make our country great.

The work of the church, synagogue or mosque cannot and should not be defined by or limited to the four walls of a building — faith based groups are often our charities, universities, and hospitals. The Christian school, the Jewish day care center, the Islamic community center should be distinctive. And this issue needs to be decided by the constitutional means of the legislature and the Court — not by some "regulation."

We have a responsibility to project those liberties from government intrusion, and I will continue to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to ensure that the Obama administration's unlawful health care mandate is repealed as soon as possible and replaced with the common-sense reforms our health care system needs.

Roy Blunt, a Republican, is a senator from Missouri.