Rollback of Civil Rights Protections Could Be Disastrous for Religious Americans

April 21, 2023
Civil Rights? | First Liberty Institute

by Jorge Gomez • 5 min read

First Liberty recently submitted public comments in response to a Biden administration proposal that could lessen religious liberty protections.

The U.S. Department of Labor, Department of Health and Human Services, and Department of the Treasury announced a proposed rule change regarding coverage of certain preventive services under the Affordable Care Act. The new rule could force organizations to provide health insurance coverage for contraceptives and abortifacients in violation of their sincere moral objections.

Our comment was signed by First Liberty attorneys Justin Butterfield, Christine Pratt, and Maya Noronha, all of whom were involved in drafting or implementing the current rules protecting rights of conscience adopted during the Trump administration. They emphasize that the proposed rule change cannot conflict with religious liberty protections under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and other federal religious liberty and conscience laws. According to the comment:

“To protect the constitutional and civil rights protections of free exercise of religion and conscience, the government should provide adequate religious and moral accommodations. The proposed rule’s rollback of civil rights protections will have a disastrous effect on Americans of faith, and reduce tolerance for a diversity of beliefs in our society as a whole.”

Religious leaders and policy and legal experts across the country have also spoken out. Rachel Morrison, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, told Bloomberg Law that “in America we have a long history of respecting moral objections, especially when it comes to health care and issues related to life.” She added, “there are robust protections for conscience rights, and this is a context where that should be recognized as well.”

John F. Brehany at the National Catholic Bioethics Center also expressed opposition. “The Biden administration appears to be purposefully eroding protections for conscientious religious beliefs of U.S. citizens, protections which were built into the Constitution from the beginning. This is profoundly harmful to the legal and social order,” he said.

Other leading experts described this as an attempt to resist the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson ruling, which properly returned power to regulate abortion back to the states. But in a press release, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said the regulations are allegedly necessary because the “U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs has placed a heightened importance on access to contraceptive services nationwide.”

Roger Severino—vice president of domestic policy at the Heritage Foundation and a former HHS official—told CatholicVote in an interview:

“It’s all politics. They have to answer to their radical pro-abortion base. They couldn’t stomach the fact that they have lost this issue at every stage at the Supreme Court, and they want to show that they are continuing to resist in the wake of the Dobbs ruling…This is a purely political stunt to try to send a message to institutions with moral objections to the sexual revolution.”

This is just the latest in a long list of Biden administration policies that threaten religious liberty.

HHS also put forward a rule commonly known as the “transgender mandate,” which would force millions of religious health care professionals and institutions to participate in “gender-transition” surgeries—while allowing exceptions for secular reasons. In response, First Liberty delivered a compelling 42-page public comment explaining that this rule would be disastrous for Americans of faith in health care.

First Liberty also submitted public comments opposing the administration’s proposed “Partnerships with Faith-Based and Neighborhood Organizations” rules that lessen federal protections for religious employers. These would amend a Trump-era rule that ensured faith-based organizations partnering with the government could deliver key social services while remaining true to their religious convictions. We warned that these changes would render religious providers unable to fulfill their mission to bring religious programming to areas and populations that lack adequate social services.

Even though freedom of conscience and religion are bedrock principles, the administrative state continues to target and punish people because of their beliefs. This is not only wrong, but in many cases it’s illegal and unconstitutional. This vindictive approach betrays our historic commitment to the idea that Americans should not be forced to violate their deeply held religious or moral convictions.

Americans must remain vigilant. The Biden administration is continually finding ways to attack those who desire to live and work in a manner consistent with their faith. Many of its policies have little to do with equality before the law. They have more to do with coercing people of faith to conform to a radical ideology.

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