The Word from Lansing: Federal Legislation Exposes Threats to Religious Liberty

The freedom to exercise our religious beliefs in the public realm is a longstanding cornerstone of our nation. The U.S. bishops wrote in their 2012 document, “Our First Most Cherished Liberty,” that as Catholic Americans, we should be “grateful for the gift of faith which is ours as Christian disciples, and grateful for the gift of liberty which is ours as American citizens.”

In recent years, the Catholic Church has fought to protect this important freedom as some sectors of the government and the public have become increasingly hostile towards faith-based organizations and individuals. In response, the Michigan Catholic Conference and the U.S. bishops, along with other religious denominations, have spoken strongly against the federal Department of Health and Human Services’ contraception mandate, which has forced employers to decide between providing coverage for services that are morally objectionable in employee health plans, paying crippling fines, or dropping health care coverage altogether for their employees.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a critical decision related to this mandate in June when the Court, in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, found that closely-held corporations cannot be required to provide objectionable contraceptive coverage in their employee health benefit plans. After the justices upheld the importance of protecting religious convictions for these businesses, the U.S. Senate regrettably introduced a measure, S. 2578, which would turn back progress made by the Burwell decision. Under S. 2578, the so-called “Protect Women’s Health from Corporate Interference Act,” employers, insurers and employees would be prohibited from opting out of federally mandate health coverage citing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act or any other federal law. While the legislation is aimed at enforcing the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act, the broad language in the bill would allow this to be applied to future mandates for health plans.

Supporters of S. 2578 argue that such a law will expand health care and provide greater choices for women. Instead, this bill disregards the freedom of individuals and businesses, including many women, who do not want to promote or pay for services contrary to their religious beliefs. The bill also would force many businesses and people of faith to drop health care coverage to avoid providing the services, a decision that will lead to less overall health care and certainly have a negative impact on the poor and vulnerable in society.

The measure received 56 votes in the U.S. Senate, falling short of the 60 needed to move forward in the legislative process. While the discussion on this particular measure has ended for the time being, it is disconcerting that so many U.S. senators voted in support of moving this anti-religious liberty bill forward.

In light of this and other threats, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and a diverse coalition of religious organizations earlier this summer called for continued protection of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in light of the threats. Leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Southern Baptist Convention, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, the Rabbinical Council of America, and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, among others, joined in signing the letter, which called the law “a highly flexible legal standard that protects the rights of religious faiths, including the most vulnerable.” Together, these organizations recognized the importance of communicating with elected officials about the role religious freedom should continue to play in our nation, an action we must also be willing to do as faithful citizens.

The MCC and the USCCB remain committed to standing up for religious liberty. In fact, legislation was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in late July that would protect the rights of child placement agencies to operate according to their faith tradition. The proposed law, called the Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act of 2014, specifically would prohibit the exclusion of child welfare providers from federal funding because of the providers’ religious or moral beliefs. The act is a priority for the U.S. bishops’ conference and is crucial to maintaining the diverse tradition of adoption agencies that help place children in loving homes.

To learn more about the Inclusion Act and the Catholic Church’s response to other religious liberty matters, visit