Tag archives: Conscience Protection

Little Sisters of the Poor Are Once Again Denied Freedom of Conscience

by Katherine Beck Johnson

October 23, 2019

The Little Sisters of the Poor were back in court yet again yesterday, this time losing at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Back in 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a federal mandate as part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The mandate required employers to provide contraceptives, including the week-after pill, free-of-cost in their health insurance plans. HHS offered only a very narrow religious exemption. So narrow, it did not include non-profits—such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order of nuns who assist the impoverished who are at the end of their lives with nowhere else to go. These nuns have dedicated their lives to their faith and to serving the poor. Yet, these women were sued and told that they must violate their conscience by providing contraception through their insurance.

In May 2016, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned lower court rulings against the Little Sisters. The Court said the government should be provided an opportunity “to arrive at an approach going forward that accommodates the petitioners’ religious beliefs.” On May 4, 2017, President Trump issued an executive order that directed the secretaries of federal agencies to consider regulations that would address the conscience-based objections to the ACA’s contraceptive mandate. On November 7, 2018, the federal government complied with the Supreme Court’s ruling and the president’s executive order by issuing a new rule protecting religious liberty. This new rule provided religious ministries, entities, and persons holding sincere religious beliefs with an exemption to the contraceptive and sterilization coverage.

Soon after the rule was issued, states including Pennsylvania and California sued the federal government to ensure that the Little Sisters of the Poor would not be exempted from providing contraception. Even though these states have programs that provide contraceptives to women who want them, these states insist that non-profits, including the Little Sisters, must either be forced to violate their conscience or else cease to exist.  

In July 2019, the Third Circuit ruled against the Little Sisters of the Poor. The Third Circuit claimed that the Women’s Health Amendment to the ACA did not grant the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA, a component of HHS) the authority to exempt entities from providing insurance coverage for contraceptive services. On October 22, 2019, the Ninth Circuit issued a similar ruling and affirmed the preliminary injunction. The Ninth Circuit said, “the statute delegates to HRSA the discretion to determine which types of preventative care are covered, but the statute does not delegate to HRSA or any other agency the discretion to exempt who must meet the obligation.” Thus, the Ninth Circuit and the Third Circuit prevented relief for the Little Sisters of the Poor by issuing an injunction and blocking the implementation of a rule that would allow religious protections.

The Supreme Court needs to settle the debate and rule that the government cannot require people and groups to violate their conscience by providing contraceptive services. The Court should uphold the HHS rule, which protects the inherent human right of religious liberty. This liberty promotes the common good and allows society to flourish. The Little Sisters of the Poor certainly promote the common good as they assist the poorest in society. Violating their conscience ought not to be a precondition for the Little Sisters assisting those most in need.

Vermont Nurse Forced to Participate in an Abortion Despite a Conscience Objection

by Connor Semelsberger

August 28, 2019

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced today that they are issuing a violation notice to the University of Vermont Medical Center (UVMMC) because they forced a nurse to participate in an abortion despite a conscience objection.

In 2017, UVMMC (located in Burlington, Vt.) began performing abortions on site without notifying their employees. A nurse had expressed objection to assisting in abortions for many years, and was even included on a list of staff with objections. However, UVMMC purposefully assigned the nurse to assist in an abortion despite her objection to the horrific procedure. The nurse did not know that the procedure was an abortion until the nurse walked into the operating room and the abortionist said, “Don’t hate me.” The nurse then objected to assisting in the abortion. There were other staff on site who could have assisted with the abortion, but UVMMC forced the nurse to participate in the abortion or be subject to discipline that could include loss of licensure. In the end, the nurse decided to participate over fear of harsh retaliation by the health center.

Choosing between your sincerely-held religious or moral beliefs and your career is a decision that no health professional should have to make. When someone is pressured to violate their conscience or lose their livelihood, it leaves the health care provider in a situation that creates great emotional and spiritual turmoil. Even though abortion has been legal in America for over 40 years, our federal laws have fortunately protected the conscience rights of health care providers. In the 1970s, the Church Amendments were enacted to protect the conscience rights of individuals and entities that object to performing or assisting in the performance of abortion or sterilization if it would be contrary to the providers’ religious or moral convictions.

On May 9, 2018, the nurse from Vermont filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) at HHS. HHS responded by fulfilling their duties to enforce the Church Amendments and launched an investigation into the complaint, contacting UVMMC to seek cooperation, but the hospital refused to conform its policies to the law and would not produce witnesses to be interviewed about this incident. Now, UVMMC has 30 days to notify HHS that they will change their current policies that force staff to participate in abortions and take steps to remedy the effects of their past actions. If they do not comply in this timeframe, they could be barred from the $1.6 million in federal funding they received.

This is now the third conscience compliant that OCR has investigated since President Trump took office. The other complaints dealt with the states of California and Hawaii forcing pregnancy resource centers to post materials that advertise for abortion. Because of action by OCR, both complaints have been resolved. The enforcement of these conscience protections is yet another example of how the Trump administration has followed through in protecting life, conscience, and religious liberty. These enforcement actions should encourage health care providers who feel like their employer is coercing them to participate in an abortion to file a complaint with OCR, for as we see above, the Trump administration will certainly enforce our conscience laws and defend their rights.

Dilshat Perhat Ataman: A Prisoner of Conscience in China

by Arielle Del Turco

July 3, 2019

As the United States and China continue to discuss trade, we have a unique opportunity to raise religious freedom concerns such as that country’s ongoing detention of Christian pastors and mass repression of Uyghur Muslims. It is therefore encouraging to see Family Research Council President and chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Tony Perkins announce yesterday that he was formally adopting Dilshat Perhat Ataman as a prisoner of conscience to highlight his case of unjust imprisonment due to his faith.

Dilshat is a Uyghur Muslim currently detained in a “re-education” internment camp in China’s Xinjiang province.

Dilshat founded and managed a popular website called “Diyarim,” which promoted Uyghur history and culture and provided a social media platform to the Uyghur community. In 2009, he was arrested by Chinese authorities and charged with “endangering state security” after a comment was posted in a chatroom on his website about the Chinese government’s suppression of Uyghur protests.

After serving five years in prison, Dilshat was released in 2014. Yet, his freedom was short-lived. In June 2018, he was rearrested without reason from the Chinese authorities—this time he was taken to a “re-education” internment camp.

Those who have been released from these camps describe how Uyghurs are tortured during interrogation, live in crowded cells, and are subjected to extensive daily regimens of Chinese Communist Party indoctrination (as seen in this BBC report). Detainees routinely face harsh treatment and are forced to live in unhygienic conditions, sometimes leading to their death. 

The Chinese government has invested a lot of resources to surveil and suppress Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.

Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group who are mostly Muslim. Yet, it is not a contradiction to say that Christians must care about the suffering they face due to their religious beliefs and advocate on their behalf.  

Christians believe that God is in control of human affairs yet gives people the freedom to choose their beliefs. Just as God gives people that freedom, we should defend the freedom of others to choose and live out their religious convictions without any government harassing, oppressing, imprisoning, or killing people for expressing their basic right to religious freedom.

What the Chinese government is doing to the Uyghurs is evil—and that should be something everyone is concerned about.

Dilshat is one of at least 880,000 and possibly more than 2 million Uyghurs who are detained in Chinese “re-education” internment camps.

The injustice of China’s detention of Dilshat Perhat Ataman in a “re-education” camp is obvious. Hopefully, by bringing Dilshat’s case to light, there will be a greater awareness of the plight of Uyghur Muslims who are targeted for persecution because the Chinese government views their religious beliefs as a threat to the political ideology and authority of the Communist Party.

Summary of Oral Arguments in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corporation v. Sebelius

by Travis Weber

March 27, 2014

The post-oral-argument predictions in the Hobby Lobby case will continue to pour out as various entities (more or less interested in the outcome) make guesses about which way the Supreme Court will rule now that the justices have had a chance to quiz the attorneys for each side. The truth is, no one knows what will happen. Nevertheless, several things were noteworthy and other things not noteworthy, about this morning’s arguments. My review of the arguments (with emphasis on noteworthy sections) is below (page numbers are those listed on the Supreme Court’s official transcript).

Arguments began with Paul Clement, the attorney for Hobby Lobby and Conestoga, presenting his clients’ case first. After some initial questions about whether Congress meant to include corporations within the Religious Freedom Restoration Act’s (RFRA) protections (pp. 4-9), the justices’ opposition to Hobby Lobby’s position predictably centered on what other claims corporations might bring should the Court rule for the Green family and against the government. Justices wondered whether a ruling for Hobby Lobby would lead to corporations objecting on religious grounds to providing vaccinations, blood transfusions, and the like. Hobby Lobby’s attorney Paul Clement disputed this implication, pointing out that the Court could be trusted to wade through these issues under RFRA. Furthermore, if the “parade of horribles” was likely to occur, where was it? RFRA has been around since 1993. Clement pointed that none of the claims over which the justices expressed concern had been brought (or they were brought but didn’t succeed) “notwithstanding the fact that the government concedes that sole proprietorships and partnerships and nonprofit corporations are all protected by RFRA” (pp. 14-15).

Clement was then questioned about how a corporation could exercise religion (pp. 17-21), but the argument drifted off into a discussion of what costs Hobby Lobby would incur if it refused to cover the contraceptives (pp. 17-29). A discussion subsequently ensued about grandfathered health plans, and then moved to the concept of burden shifting between the objecting employer and its employees (pp. 29-38). Clement noted that exemptions are allowed in the conscience law context — if a doctor objects to providing an abortion, the woman is not prevented from obtaining the procedure, but she must go to another provider (p. 38). Clement also pointed out that the government has available to it a less restrictive alternative than the current HHS mandate — allowing employees of objecting corporations to go on the exchanges and subsidizing them like it does for employees at companies with fewer than 50 workers (p. 40).

At this point, the government’s attorney, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, took over and opened by arguing that the requested accommodation’s impact on third parties must be examined (pp. 43-46). He was then pressed by the justices on why the government insisted on hampering for-profit corporate religious exercise but not other religious exercise (pp. 46-49). When Verrilli said the Court had never ruled that corporations had a right to exercise religion, Justice Alito asked if “there’s something about the corporate form per se that is inconsistent with [a] free exercise claim” (p. 46). He followed: “Do you agree … that for­profit corporations must do nothing but maximize profits, they cannot have other aims … including religious aims?” (p. 47) Verrilli said no, but the point was made.

Verrilli then argued that ruling for Hobby Lobby would permit other problematic claims (pp. 52-53). He was pressed about the ability of corporations to have a racial identity (which courts have held), but said such a scenario was different from this case, which involves “exercise of religion — something the courts have never recognized corporations can do (p. 54). However, neither have the courts said corporations can’t engage in religious exercise. He was then pressed by Justice Kennedy about exemptions being given by the government apart from RFRA concerns (pp. 56-58). Verrilli explained that churches were exempt (as they have always been considered special under the law), but argued that the other companies and groups that do not have to pay were not actually subject to “exemptions” but were just categorized differently under the law (pp. 58-59). He was then pressed to explain when the grandfathered plans would end (pp. 59-60) — such continual “grandfathering” with slow and piecemeal implementation demonstrates the lack of a compelling government interest in enforcing the HHS mandate.

Justice Breyer then questioned Verrilli and asked him to explain how the government might meet the contraceptive needs of women less restrictively than enforcing the HHS mandate (pp. 64-69). Justice Kennedy quizzed Verrilli and said that according to the government’s logic, it seemed that a for-profit corporation could be forced to pay for abortions. Verrilli had to admit his logic allowed such a result, but he attempted to minimize the implication by noting there was no such law mandating abortions on the books at this time (p. 75). He followed by pointing out that the federal and state laws regarding abortion don’t consider the “particular forms of contraception” at issue in this case to cause abortions (pp. 75-77).

Verrilli had trouble batting away hypotheticals from Justices Alito and Breyer showing the problems corporations may face in bringing religious exercise claims (should the government win in this case) challenging laws banning kosher or halal slaughter methods (pp. 78-81). He concluded by pointing out that companies were going into the public sphere, and this would be the first time a company could be permitted to override statutory benefits under a Free Exercise or RFRA claim (p. 81). At the last moment, Verrilli was questioned by Justice Scalia about the government’s claim that it was not drawing a distinction between for-profits and non-profits (p. 82). Justice Scalia quite rightly noticed differences with how the government was treating the two groups (p. 82).

Paul Clement then had the last word. During his few minutes of rebuttal argument, Clement pointed out that Congress has applied the abortion conscience laws to all providers, including for-profit providers. But if Congress changed those laws, the government (according to its argument today) would take the position that RFRA does not apply to protect providers objecting on conscience grounds (p. 83). Clement also reminded the Court that if the government is going to burden religious exercise, its regulation has to do so in the least restrictive way. In this regard, Title X already provides for contraception coverage, so the government could provide contraceptive coverage through Title X (pp. 83-86). He also reminded the Court of one point Hobby Lobby already made in its brief — the government could simply pay for the contraceptives (p. 86). Clement concluded by noting that Congress has already spoken in an abundantly clear manner on the issue of religious freedom when it passed RFRA, but “[h]ere the agency has decided that it’s going to accommodate a subset of the persons protected by RFRA. In a choice between what Congress has provided and what the agency has done, the answer is clear” (p. 87).

With that, the arguments were concluded. A written decision in the case is expected in June 2014.

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