ERLC Supports the Conscience Protection Act

A right unenforced is no right at all. U.S. law, through the Weldon Amendment and other provisions, has long protected the conscience rights of all Americans. And yet, because the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) under the previous administration refused to enforce the Weldon Amendment in several cases involving medical professionals, these Americans are left without a remedy to defend their right.

Current federal law prohibits the coercion of those with religious and moral objections to abortion into participating in or funding abortion services. The Church Amendment of 1973 states that hospitals or individuals who receive federal funds will not be required to participate in abortion. The Hyde Amendment prohibits government appropriations from being used to fund abortion or health benefits that cover of abortion. And the Weldon Amendment prohibits appropriations to the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education to be made available to any governmental entity that discriminates, “on the basis that the health care entity does not provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions.” There has long been bipartisan consensus on the compromise between abortion and conscience rights; both the Hyde and Weldon amendments have been attached to every appropriations bill passed through Congress since 2004.

In the face of all these protections, numerous state governments and entities receiving federal funds are violating federal law. In 2009, nurse Cathy Cenzon-DeCarlo at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York was forced by her superiors to assist in the dismemberment abortion of a 22-week old baby. When she objected, she was threatened with the loss of her job. Mount Sinai, a recipient of millions in federal funding for research, violated the Church Amendment, a related conscience protection, by coercing nurse DeCarlo to participate in the abortion. Another example of abuse, among many others, happened in 2011 when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' (USCCB) Migration and Refugee Services was denied an HHS grant renewal for serving survivors of human trafficking. HHS, in blatant violation of both the Hyde and Weldon amendments, denied this grant because USCCB would not commit to referring their survivor clients to healthcare providers that covered abortion.

HHS failed to defend those like Nurse DeCarlo and USCCB, leaving them without a remedy. This is especially problematic considering that in USCCB’s case, HHS was the alleged violator. Protecting the right to live according to one’s own deeply held beliefs is too important to leave to political discretion.

The Conscience Protection Act would provide conscience abuse victims the ability to defend their rights with tailored legal remedies. Healthcare professionals need a stated and reasonable legal remedy to defend their freedom of conscience when infringed upon by a superior. Currently, the only enforcement mechanism should HHS honor a conscience abuse complaint is to eliminate federal funding to the state government or entity in question because Church, Hyde, and Weldon are “limitation of funds” riders. The elimination of federal funds to an entire state is an unreasonable, and therefore not used, response. This is why new congressional action for conscience protection is important even during a presidential administration friendly to conscience freedom claims.

The ERLC is committed to this policy because it touches two of our most closely held convictions. Protecting the consciences of our neighbors is an exercise in religious liberty. Protecting health-care workers from the coercive on-demand abortion industry is a pro-life responsibility. Protecting the conscience freedom of pro-life healthcare professionals is one of the ERLC’s top legislative priorities.

The ERLC urges White House, Senate, and House leadership to make the Conscience Protection Act a top priority in negotiations for the December appropriations package. The Conscience Protection Act was included in the House package passed in September. The Senate bill is silent on this issue. The Conscience Protection Act is a top pro-life and religious liberty priority for 2018 for the ERLC, and we urge White House and Congressional leadership to ensure the Conscience Protection Act becomes law.