Conscience Unites!

Late last night on National Review Online‘s “The Corner,” my friend and colleague and bright intellectual light of our day, Ramesh Ponnuru, pointed to an opinion piece by former congresswoman Nancy Johnson. In an election year where accusations of a “war on women” have drowned out common-sense defenses of our first freedom, what a welcome sight, to see a liberal, “pro-choice,” Republican defend our right to real religious freedom.

She writes:

The Affordable Care Act for the first time in our history gives the federal government the right to mandate the benefits of a national insurance package. All plans on the exchanges and all employer plans, including those self-insured by an employer, will have to provide at least these benefits. Although the Affordable Care Act includes a narrow exception for places of worship, it does not include the full religious rights language of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act nor reflect the thinking on this subject of strong pro-choice senators such as Sens. Kennedy and Moynihan. If the administration mandated coverage of abortion in a bill without a conscience clause, the issue would have been joined clearly.

It is the fear raised by the new federal power to mandate benefits without Religious Freedom Restoration Act protections that is behind the Blunt amendment. Mandates regarding both beginning of life care and end of life care will raise religious concerns, so denying these protections, which were specifically to balance the individual’s right to religious freedom and the nation’s right to address compelling interests, is troubling.

Strong pro-choice representatives and senators, women and men, have understood the value of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Until the Affordable Care Act dramatically limited protection, it was seen as essential in a democracy that guarantees religious freedom. I respect Republican Senate candidate Linda McMahon for understanding that being pro-choice does not mean denying others the right to seek the well-established protection of our conscience exemption.

Jeff Fortenberry, the congressman from Nebraska who had been flagging the threats to conscience represented by the president’s health-care bill long before Congress passed it to find out what was in it, makes this point often. The legislation he proposed subsequent to its passage (it is the partner to the Blunt amendment in the Senate) — even before the HHS abortion-drug, sterilization, contraception mandate was finalized — “restores the operative ethical norm that has prevailed in our culture for generations. In fact, the language is similar to that proposed by Hillary Clinton in the 1990s, and by Sen. Ted Kennedy, and signed into law by President Clinton. A strong bipartisan consensus for conscience rights carried through the 1990s and beyond.”

What a wonderful clear light former congresswoman Johnson shines. All too often the word “choice” is used to mask ideology. Johnson shows a real commitment to liberty. Thank you! Please take the time to talk about this issue of “Obamacare” and the religious-liberty erosion that is this “contraception mandate” people talk about as if it is an answer to a crisis. Opposing this HHS mandate has nothing to do with judging Sandra Fluke or anyone else, it has nothing to do with imposing sectarian moral teaching on the country, it has everything to do with protecting our most basic right to authentically live the gift of faith, a freedom from which we flourish.

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