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Published February 10, 2012, 11:30 PM

Bill aims to restore freedom

One of our country’s most sacred freedoms is religious liberty, and it has been so since our founding.

By: Sen. John Hoeven , Washington, D.C.

One of our country’s most sacred freedoms is religious liberty, and it has been so since our founding. In the Constitution, our forefathers stated that Congress could not enact a law that would prohibit the free exercise of religion. Recently, the Department of Health and Human Services failed to uphold this value when it refused to exempt most Catholic and faith-based institutions from providing insurance coverage for contraception, abortifacients and sterilization – drugs and procedures that violate many Americans’ deeply held moral convictions.

In response, I am co-sponsoring legislation introduced Jan. 31 that would exempt faith-based institutions from being forced to provide insurance that would cover these drugs and procedures. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (S 2043) directly targets the administration’s recent decision and would ensure that church-affiliated organizations would not have to violate their religious tenets to follow the law.

Before 2010, faith-based institutions had the freedom to provide insurance coverage that did not violate their founding principles and long-held beliefs. However, that was changed with the passing of the sweeping health care reform legislation, which included a provision that would force all insurance providers to include insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization and, arguably, some abortifacients. U.S. religious leaders pushed back against the measure, asking for an expansion of the so-called “conscience clause,” an extremely narrow exemption that does not include many religious organizations, including hospitals, universities and charities.

On Jan. 20, the administration announced that it would not broaden the exemption but rather interpreted the law to require faith-based institutions to provide insurance coverage for drugs and procedures that violate their belief systems. The decision deeply disappointed millions of Americans who had hoped the administration’s review would recognize the provision’s affront on religious liberties. The public outcry in response has been resounding and justified, and not only people of faith but even those who do not hold these moral positions have expressed grave concern over the administration’s disregard for religious liberty and issues of conscience.

On Sunday, Jan. 29, Catholics throughout North Dakota heard their bishops’ response to the administration’s refusal to extend conscience rights. Bishops Samuel Aquila of Fargo and David Kagan of Bismarck described the ruling as a “heavy blow” to Catholics, who comprise almost a quarter of the American population, and to the millions that they serve.

Acting in concert with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Aquila and Kagan outlined their concern that, under the current law, Catholic institutions, such as universities, will either have to violate their governing principles and deeply held beliefs by including the compromising insurance coverage for employees, or drop employee health care altogether, which would carry its own legal ramifications.

I believe that Congress should protect the right for any person or institution to negotiate a health plan or render medical care without violating their deeply held values and religious beliefs, which is an accommodation that has continuously been preserved until now.

I will continue to work to see that government does not infringe on the religious freedom we have long enjoyed as Americans and work to pass legislation that protects it.

Hoeven, R-N.D., is in his first term in the U.S. Senate.