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By Geoffrey Surtees1328564329000

The President has declared war without an Act of Congress. I don’t mean an armed conflict or putting soldiers in harm’s way. I refer to the President’s Department of Health and Human Services’ war on religious civil liberties. The President’s actions on this front have directly placed in harm’s way scores of religious institutions and charities, not to mention the people these ministries serve.

Thankfully, members of Congress are moving forward in an attempt to bring this war to a positive resolution and a victory for religious civil liberties.

Not long after Kathleen Sebelius announced that nonprofit employers who object to abortifacient drugs, sterilization, and contraception on religious grounds would be given an additional year before they have to violate their conscience or close their doors, Senator Marco Rubio introduced the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 2012.”

The bill provides that no individual or entity would be forced under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“PPACA”) “to offer, provide, or purchase coverage for a contraceptive or sterilization service, or related education or counseling, to which that individual or entity is opposed on the basis of religious belief.”

As Senator Rubio correctly stated:

The Obama Administration’s obsession with forcing mandates on the American people has now reached a new low by violating the conscience rights and religious liberties of our people . . . Under this President, we have a government that has grown too big, too costly and now even more overbearing by forcing religious entities to abandon their beliefs. This is a common sense bill that simply says the government can’t force religious organizations to abandon the fundamental tenets of their faith because the government says so.

Senator Rubio’s bill, which enjoys the support of a number of U.S. Senators, is a major step forward in ensuring that the long cherished rights of religious freedom and conscience would be protected under federal law.

Another bill, currently pending in the House of Representatives, and introduced by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska, is titled the “Respect for Rights of Conscience Act of 2011.” With this bill, nothing under PPACA “shall be construed to require an individual or institutional health care provider, or authorize a health plan to require a provider, to provide, participate in, or refer for a specific item or service contrary to the provider’s religious beliefs or moral convictions.”

Though this bill was introduced last year, before Sebelius’ January 20 announcement, it would help to ensure that the religious institutions now under assault by HHS will receive the legal protections they deserve. As Rep. Fortenberry wrote after the recent HHS announcement:

Under this rule, within the year, religiously-affiliated medical providers would have to fire and refuse to treat persons of other faiths in order to uphold their own deeply-held beliefs -- or be forced, by order of Secretary Sebelius, to close their doors rather than violate tenets of their religion. This is forced discrimination. This is wrong. No American should be forced to choose between their faith and their job.

Those religious charities that have come under attack by the current administration serve numerous needs of thousands citizens across the nation. These institutions should be applauded and commended by the government for the charitable and civic work they do, not punished or coerced by it.

One step in fighting the President’s new war on religious civil liberties is federal legislation that will allow for broad and robust conscience protection. The right to freedom of conscience is not a liberty to be surrendered or compromised. The Declaration of Independence speaks to it; the Constitution requires it; Congress should guard it.

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